By Emma Whitford
May 3, 2019
Marcela Mitaynes, 43, describes the rent-stabilized apartment where she grew up in Sunset Park as a “mini-Ellis Island,” where, over four generations, “one-by-one my family migrated to New York from Peru.” Standing on the steps of City Hall Thursday morning, she recalled how a new landlord bought the building in 2008 and pressured her out. Now she lives in an unregulated apartment. “I am vulnerable to arbitrary rent increases, and I don’t have a right to a lease [renewal],” she said. “But that can change.”
Mitaynes was one of more than 100 tenants, advocates and landlords who lined up along Broadway in Lower Manhattan early Thursday to attend the first of three New York State Assembly hearings on rent laws. A package of nine bills pending in Albany could strengthen protections for the city’s one million rent stabilized tenants, and expand protections across New York State for tenants like Mitaynes. Thursday’s hearing began at 11 a.m. with a packed overflow room, and continued into the night.
New York City lost more than 284,000 stabilized apartments between 1994 and 2016, according to the Rent Guidelines Board—attributable, housing advocates say, to a combination of loopholes and lax enforcement. Homes and Community Renewal, the state agency tasked with enforcing rent stabilization, declined the Assembly’s invitation to testify Thursday, according to Housing Committee Chair Steven Cymbrowitz. (An HCR spokesperson said they submitted written testimony, and that they plan on appearing in person in another hearing next week.)
Seven of the bills would close loopholes that allow landlords to boost rents in vacant apartments and ultimately deregulate them, while two others would allow municipalities across the state to opt into rent stabilization, and instate “good cause” eviction protections under the umbrella of so-called universal rent control. With the latter, the vast majority of the state’s 3.3 million renting families would be guaranteed a lease renewal and incremental rent increases unless a landlord proves an exception like refusal to pay. (A carve-out in the bill exempts buildings that are also a landlord’s primary residence.)
Democrats in the legislature have assured tenants that they can expect significant reforms this year, now that the party controls both the Senate and the Assembly. “Now is a magical time,” Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal said Thursday.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced aspects of the package backed by tenants—including repeals to vacancy decontrol and preferential rents, whereby landlords can abruptly increase rents to their legal limit. Even Joseph Strasburg, president of the pro-landlord Rent Stabilization Association, conceded in his testimony Thursday that, “It's clear—the elimination of vacancy decontrol is basically a done deal."
But the governor has been less specific on statewide reforms, and suggested rent increases tied to apartment renovations should be made temporary, not eliminated altogether. This week, Brian Lehrer asked Cuomo if he would sign a good cause bill, which would protect market-rate tenants from being evicted for not paying an “unconscionable” rent increase. “I don’t want to negotiate bill by bill in this setting,” he replied. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who briefly attended Thursday’s hearing, recently endorsed eight of the nine bills, excluding good cause.
The statewide bills would make a big difference for tenants outside the city, said Allie Dentinger, 27, who recently moved to New York City from Rochester. Without them, “We [had] to do things like show up in the landlord’s yard with the media to get them to stop evictions,” she said. “Why is that okay?”
Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society testified that many New York City residents would also benefit from the changes. In Queens, for example, nearly 30 percent of rental apartments are unregulated. Across most of Staten Island, no more than 10 percent of the rental stock is. “We have clients who… are too scared that they will lose the roof over their head if they complain about apartment conditions,” Staten Island attorney Teresa DeFonso said.
Freshman Brooklyn Senator Julia Salazar is sponsoring the good cause bill, which is proving to be the most controversial. She says she would personally benefit, as her apartment building is too small to be stabilized. “I think the biggest challenge is that of all of the bills in the platform, this one is brand new,” she said. “The priority is being given to legislation that people are familiar with and have been advocating for.”
“I think any time we're expanding rights and doing things that don't currently exist in some of the places outside of New York City that there's going to be some natural hesitation,” added Senator Zellnor Myrie, another freshman from Central Brooklyn, who observed Thursday’s hearing. “I think that dynamic holds true in both houses.”
Opposition to the full slate of rent reforms comes from real estate interests, including the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and the RSA, which argue that reforms will put working-class landlords and contractors in a financial pinch. These groups hosted a small rally in City Hall Park Thursday morning, under the umbrella of Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, with a handful of self-described “small property owners.”
Chris Athineos, 49, a landlord with nine buildings in Brooklyn, said that he needs renovation rent increases such as Major Capital Improvements and Individual Apartment Improvements to keep his buildings habitable. “These allow us to invest in our buildings,” he said. “We are in the customer service business.”
Cea Weaver, coordinator of Housing Justice For All, says a forthcoming report from the coalition of statewide tenant groups will show that the average landlord portfolio size in New York is 21 buildings. REBNY represents some of the largest developers in New York, including Tishman Speyer and Extell Development Company, she added.
Two more Assembly hearings are scheduled—May 9th in Albany and May 10th in Rochester—and Senator Myrie said that complimentary Senate hearings will be announced shortly.
“I really hope that the governor is listening to the testimony of tenants and New Yorkers all over the state, throughout the upcoming hearings,” Senator Salazar said. “And I hope that testimony informs his position more than private interests.”