In the world of tenant activists, 2009 was a year of tremendous optimism. And then it wasn’t.
Democratic control of the State Senate failed to provide any of the radical changes to rent laws that activists had long fought for—and that were expected once Republicans were booted from the majority. Deadlock dominated; the housing committee chair led a short-lived coup; then status quo regained power, allowing the real estate industry to exhale.
Now, a new front is opening in an age-old fight.
With a budget past due and the Senate Democrats looking increasingly vulnerable to losing their 32-30 majority in November’s elections, the tenants are scrambling to get something—anything—passed, approaching the rent law changes with a new urgency.
Next week an array of tenant activist groups are planning to formally launch a campaign to push the Democratic conference—which has long said that tenant issues are at the top of its agenda—to pass major changes before the end of the legislative session in June, including abolishing the right of landlords to take empty apartments market rate.
The groups plan to target a few key senators who are currently blocking a vote on their issues, and plan extensive ground-level organizing (door-knocking, canvassing, phone calls) within their districts. New York Communities for Change, the successor to the now-defunct organizing powerhouse ACORN, plans to engage in the push, and the Working Families Party counts tenant rights as one of its top priorities after a budget is finished.
“Even if they’re back in power by one vote, we are finished,” Mike McKee, the director of Housing Here and Now and a longtime tenant advocate, said of the Republicans. “We’re going to do a very sustained job.”
But rent issues are a microcosm of the stalemate and infighting within the Senate, making it hard to see how the tenants could ever get their 32 votes needed by June for any significant legislation. Landlords, meanwhile, seem unconcerned.
Vacancy decontrol—the provision by which landlords are allowed to convert rent-stabilized apartments into more lucrative market-rate units once a stabilized tenant moves out—is indeed the issue that ignites the most fervor. Tenant groups have pushed for years for a full repeal of the provision, calling for a dramatic change that would no longer allow stabilized apartments to go market rate and would re-regulate tens of thousands of apartments that have, particularly those in Manhattan.
To the real estate industry, this would be the ultimate affront, one they have poured millions of dollars in campaign contributions in recent years to prevent. The affected landlords—Glenwood Management owner Leonard Litwin is the most munificent on the political front—decry the repeal of decontrol as anarchic, saying it would bankrupt landlords across the city, send tax rolls plummeting and, ironically, provide low rents for the rich as well as the poor.
THE LIBERAL MEMBERS of the Democratic majority in the Senate feel they need to demonstrate some action on their core issues before the election.
State Senator Tom Duane said that rent regulation is at the top of the agenda of the progressive caucus he leads. “One of the premiere issues of the progressive caucus is a reinstatement of the rent regulation that has been lost in the years,” he said.
But the Democrats’ Senate—characterized by an array of competing factions and personalities, with each individual member having the power to hold up any legislation—has difficulty agreeing on anything controversial, and the Manhattan Democrats often have lost out to members such as Majority Leader Pedro Espada of the Bronx, who has been more willing to go against the grain of the conference.
For his part, Mr. Espada, who is also the chairman of the housing committee, took it upon himself to dismiss the progressives’ push for a repeal of vacancy decontrol, offering a window into some of the tensions.
“I am speaking for the entire Democratic majority leadership team—Senators Sampson, Smith and Klein—when I say that none of us think this is a good time to push the repeal of vacancy decontrol,” he said in a statement, citing a drop in tax revenues that would come from the law.
But a spokesman for Mr. Sampson did not comment specifically on whether this was his position, and State Senator Liz Krueger, who is allied with tenant advocates, said this was untrue. “I have confirmed with the actual leader, Senator Sampson, that that is not the position of the leadership team,” she said.
Leaders within the real estate industry see this discord—and support from Mr. Espada—and seem confident that they can ward off any attempts at changing rent laws, at least for this year.
The industry’s biggest weapon: campaign contributions.
“As we all know the most difficult thing is to raise money,” said Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, offering a subtle threat for Democrats who support pro-tenant legislation. “And guess what? There would be people who would be very upset and get involved in races they might otherwise stay out of.”