By Marcos A. Crespo and Hazel Miura
May 31, 2019
The Warranty of Habitability states that New York City tenants have the right to a livable, safe and clean apartment.
Unfortunately, it does not state that the rents have to be affordable or that owners can’t bend the rules.
The Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 extended the rent laws for six years. However, it gave owners a 20% vacancy increase, Luxury Decontrol (deregulates apartments that reach $2,000 or tenants making $175,000), four-year limit on rent overcharges, and limitations on succession rights to only certain family members and from only one generation to the next.
In 2003, Albany’s Republicans passed a (rushed) bill renewing the rent laws with a provision allowing property owners to terminate preferential rents upon the renewal of tenant leases. This provision has taken tenants’ rights away from them. Some property owners quickly realized that they could make a quick profit by taking advantage of and bending some of the new rules, which have resulted in an increase in housing court cases, tenant harassment and a huge turnover of tenants in our communities.
Working closely with the Neighborhood Initiates Development Corporation (NIDC), a local non-profit which offers housing services to the tenants not only in my district, but throughout the borough, I have seen what the erosion of the rent laws have done to the tenants in my district. The constituents that come into my office for help are facing rent overcharges, Major Capital Improvement (MCI) increases and termination to their preferential rents and other housing issues that affect their quality of life.
Within the last 3 years alone, we have seen an increase in Housing Court cases, small buildings being bought by property owners who illegally terminate leases, harass and illegally evict tenants, and owners who ignored repairs to the point that the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) and Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society have to get involved, as in the case of 1210 Stratford Avenue, where the tenants have had no gas for almost a year, elevator service was sporadic and violations were not getting addressed.
The Rent Laws are there to protect tenants, but lately it feels like the landlords are benefiting. Take, for instance, the preferential rents. Before 2003, the preferential rent was in effect for the length of the tenancy; now they can be terminated at the renewal of a tenant’s lease. Owners who feel that a tenant with a preferential rent has made one too many 311 complaints now has the tool to terminate the preferential rent and charge the legal rent – which can be an increase in rent of $100 to $800 in an instant.
And it’s perfectly legal.
Major Capital Improvement (MCI) increases is another benefit. MCIs were put into place as an incentive for owners to make necessary, and in some cases much needed, capital improvements to building systems such as decaying roofs, new plumbing, heating, and electrical systems, windows and exterior work. The cost for these improvements were then passed on to tenants, on a permanent basis.
Individual Apartment Improvements (IAIs) are the most damaging because they can occur at every vacancy lease, whether they are needed or not, with increases as much as $36,000 as in the case of Mr. & Mrs. C from 1135 Boynton Avenue, who the Division of Home and Community Renewal (DHCR) found were overcharged by more than $40,000 and were awarded treble damages totaling over $140, 000.
This case took five years to resolve and numerous visits to Housing Court, but the tenants’ commitment and the perseverance of my staff and NIDC paid off.
Tenants that live in private houses have it even worse because they have very little protections and can be evicted without cause at any time. With the protection of renewal leases, their rent increase would be set by the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) as with other rent stabilized tenants throughout the city and state.
Hazel Miura (center) has advocated for tenants for 25 years.
Many tenant groups throughout the city have been pushing for Universal Rent Control which addresses these and other provisions that have affected tenants. The platform being advocated by city-wide housing groups will level the playing field and bring much needed reform to our aged and crippling rent regulations.
Expanding the Emergency Tenant Protection Act to allow more municipalities to elect to protect their housing stock in the event of a housing shortage by bringing rent control into their communities.
The “good cause” will allow tenants in private houses and buildings under 6 units to have the same protection as rent-stabilized tenants. This will combat rising rents, no-cause evictions and allow tenants to remain in their homes and communities.
Tying preferential rents to the length of the tenancy instead of the length of the renewal lease will keep owners from using this as a tool to increase rents and price out good tenants. It also returns rights to tenants and increases stabilization of the community with less turnover of tenants.
Every time an apartment becomes vacant, owners are allowed to receive an 18/20% vacancy increase, regardless of whether the owner has kept the building up to code or not. It is also a reason to get good tenants.
With owning any building or private house comes a responsibility to maintain the property and replace building systems that break down from age and wear. Owners should not be given a bonus to maintain their properties up to code.
Many of our rent-controlled tenants are paying much more in rent than our rent-stabilized tenants because of the yearly Maximum Base rent increase of 7.5% and fuel cost adjustments. Rent-controlled tenants should pay the same increases as rent-stabilized tenants making those rents affordable and stable.
Extending the 4-year rule on rent overcharges will result in owners who inflated rents to be held accountable.
After decades of the New York State Assembly championing the needs of tenants, we now have partners in the State Senate who share our values. Bills have been created in both the State Senate and Assembly that parallel the goals of the Universal Rent Control platform and, which will, for once, benefit tenants throughout New York State.