Rent Regs Reform Gathers Support

An effort to stem a tide of "vacancy decontrols" is gathering steam in the state capitol.

By: By Rachel Nielsen

Hundreds of supporters of a coordinated effort to make New York state rent laws more tenant-friendly rallied last week as a dozen state legislators signed their names to pledges calling for the repeal of “vacancy decontrol.”

The state regulation permitting landlords to take a vacant apartment out of rent regulation once the rent hits $2,000 a month is a target of tenant activists. They say tenant harassment and unlawful evictions by landlords too often generate the vacancies that precede a unit's exit from rent stabilization.

The Dec. 9 rally brought more than 600 people, by City Limits' count, to a West Side auditorium. The rally was organized by Housing Here and Now, a statewide coalition of housing rights, labor and religious organizations.

“Vacancy decontrol has put a giant bull’s eye on the city of New York,” said state Senator Jose Serrano, speaking of real estate investors “from London to Dubai” who have invested in local housing stock on the more affordable end of the spectrum. Serrano, who represents East Harlem and parts of the Bronx, told Tuesday’s audience that his district “has some of the worst examples of how vacancy decontrol has hurt our communities.” Serrano was the first elected official of the night to sign his name on an oversize pledge card on the stage, to huge cheers.

The state officials signed pledges to “make the repeal of vacancy decontrol a top priority in 2009” and to lobby the speaker of the Assembly, the Assembly housing committee chairperson, and Gov. David Paterson to support the repeal. The lobbying pledge even carried a deadline: Jan. 10, 2009.

After Serrano, giant applause went up for Senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Tom Duane, a rep for Senator Liz Krueger, and a rep for Sen. Eric Schneiderman as each signed. Also pledging were Assemblymembers Linda Rosenthal, Hakeem Jeffries, Richard Gottfried, Karim Camara and Jose Peralta, Senator Diane Savino, and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer. Senators-elect Joe Addabbo and Daniel Squadron also pledged.

The Real Rent Reform campaign, another housing coalition that helped turn out supporters for the rally, claims that repealing vacancy decontrol could stanch the loss of what it estimates are 10,000 affordable housing units per year – as well as reducing tenant harassment by landlords eager to raise rents.

Now the question is what will happen in Albany next year. Legislation to do away with vacancy decontrol was introduced by Assemblywoman Rosenthal last year and approved by the Assembly this year, but it didn’t survive the Senate. At Tuesday’s rally, a representative from the Upper West Side legislator's office told the audience, “When she goes back to Albany, she will reintroduce the legislation, and it will pass.”

But that’s not a given. For one, the Democratic majority that makes the passage of such a law more likely is itself up in the air, as Senator Malcolm Smith battles with other Senate Democrats who have leaned to the Republican aisle. Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver isn’t showing his hand. Pressed to comment on any plans for vacancy decontrol in 2009, Silver spokeswoman Sisa Moyo said “we are absolutely looking forward to 2009, with the Senate and the governor, to address affordable housing.” Asked for comment, the governor’s office declined to weigh in.

- Rachel Nielsen