Knock, Knock! Who’s There? Rent-Reg Battle Lines

c brown 3 Knock, Knock! Who’s There? Rent Reg Battle LinesOn the afternoon of April 4, the Dunkin Donuts by Kings Highway and Ocean Avenue in South Brooklyn had some out-of-neighborhood guests. A collection of 15 or so volunteers and tenant advocacy organizers were grouped around tables, taking marching orders from Giti Dadlani, an organizer with the group Tenants and Neighbors.

As confused Dunkin Donuts staffers and neighboring coffee drinkers looked on, the group was handed stacks of postcards and fact sheets, and instructed to blanket street corners and door handles of rent-stabilized apartments in the Russian-immigrant-heavy area.

The subject was a key tenant-friendly rent-regulation bill. The problem, from their perspective: The local state senator wasn’t yet supporting it, so pressure needed to be applied.

“Why hasn’t our State Senator Carl Kruger signed on to preserve affordable housing?” a door handle flier demanded in bold letters.

Such is the approach of tenant advocates these days, as a host of groups are pushing for an immense expansion of rent regulations to go through the State Legislature before the end of its session in June. Tenant-favorable legislation was blocked for years by the Republican-controlled Senate, as landlords long had the ear of then Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. But now with the Democrats newly installed in power, tenant advocates are going senator to senator to round up votes—pressuring them in Albany, door-knocking in districts and other means—to pass a set of bills that could dramatically change the Manhattan real estate market almost overnight. 

With the state budget now passed as of the start of April, tenant advocates are stepping up their pressure on housing and expect the issue to reach a boiling point later this session.

Issue No.1: a full repeal of vacancy decontrol, which allows landlords to take apartments out of the rent-stabilization program when they become vacant (if the rent reaches over $2,000 a month). A repeal of the law would keep thousands more apartments annually at below-market-rate rents when longtime tenants vacate. Opposition comes from landlords, who contend a repeal would lead to massive loan defaults and declining investment in property upkeep.

The question—and no one yet seems to have an answer—is whether the advocates can find 32 votes, the magic number in the math of the 62-member Senate, which Democrats control 32-30 (the Democratic Assembly has already passed a very tenant-friendly package of bills). 

Given the way the nascent Democratic Senate majority has dealt with controversial issues thus far, that’s looking like far heavier a lift than it did just after the party came to power in November. While tenant issues have long been a high priority, the Democratic conference has proved to be anything but cohesive, as intra-caucus disagreements have led to a highly public deadlock on a number of key issues, most notably the still-unresolved M.T.A. bailout. On the budget and the M.T.A., the Republicans have opposed the Democrats in lockstep, meaning all the Democrats must sign on to the bills if they are to pass.

Therefore, the strategy of the tenant advocates thus far has been to push and pull legislators on an individual level, both by going retail in Albany, meeting with each senator and going to wavering legislators’ backyards, targeting constituents—something of an invasive tactic. (Twenty-four have signed on to a bill repealing the law, including one Republican, Frank Padavan.)

 

AT THE FOREFRONT of the fight in Albany has been Mike McKee, the treasurer of the housing-focused political fund-raising group Tenants PAC and a constant presence on rent-regulation issues in Albany.

“We never said this was going to be a walk in the park,” said Mr. McKee, who was on hand for the April 4 South Brooklyn canvassing trip in Mr. Kruger’s district.