‘What Hostage-Taking Is All About’: City Democrats Rally for Rent Regulation

Assemblyman Keith Wright at the rally today. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

Assemblyman Keith Wright at the rally today. (Photo: Ross Barkan) Ross Barkan/Observer

A parade of city and state elected officials gathered this morning to announce their intentions to battle for stronger rent regulation laws next year, despite a Republican majority and even a governor who may be hostile to their interests.

The elected officials and tenant advocates, speaking outside City Hall, promised a full court press against State Senate Republicans and the real estate industry as the state’s rent control laws are set to expire next June.

“We are lined up here in the cold day in November to make sure that we in the state legislature, we folks in decision-making positions, that we will put human need ahead of human greed,” said Assemblyman Keith Wright, the chair of the Assembly’s housing committee. “We are here to fight for the soul of New York City.”

The Democrats promised to take a page out of the playbook that helped them win funding from Albany for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal prekindergarten program–bus activists to the state capital and hope a large, energized presence wins over state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But as some at the rally readily acknowledged, the 2015 session will be treacherous for city Democrats looking to strengthen protections for tenants and potentially cut into the profit margins of property owners.

Senate Republicans, backed by the Real Estate Board of New York’s political action committee, won an outright majority in the upper chamber. They oppose many of the priorities championed at the City Hall rally, including the repeal of the decades-old Urstadt Law, which gives Albany power over the city’s rent control laws, and vacancy decontrol, a law that allows property owners to take apartments off the rent-regulated list when they go vacant.

Other changes tenant advocates hope to make, like a reform of how capital improvements in rent-regulated apartments can lead to soaring rents and the eventual loss of rent-regulated stock, also face stiff winds in Albany. Some Democrats fear a GOP majority, emboldened by a governor who is also close to the real estate industry, could mean the tenant-friendly regulations that do exist could soon be eroded. Defenders of these regulations argue that the rising cost of maintaining property in New York City makes the demands from some Democrats and advocates unreasonable.

“I understand what hostage taking is all about,” said Comptroller Scott Stringer, a former assemblyman. “They’re gonna hold us up, they’re gonna try to shake us down but I’ve got a message for these Republicans: We will never be as strong as we are today. Our people understand what’s at stake.”

While several city elected officials, like Public Advocate Letitia James and Brooklyn Borough President and ex-State Senator Eric Adams, said repealing the Urstadt Law needed to happen next year and could indeed happen, other state legislators played down those expectations.

“Maybe the right answer is Urstadt repeal, I happen to carry that bill in the Senate, but I’ll take any and all models that move us forward because, if not, we don’t have a city to look forward to,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan lawmaker. “The assignment is dire but it’s clear. We need to do the right thing.”

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx lawmaker and ally of Ms. Krueger’s in the body’s liberal wing, said the GOP’s successes shouldn’t deter Democrats from believing they can push their agenda next year.

“Just a few weeks ago, we saw the results we had in the election–we’re not gonna lie, these are gonna be challenging times,” Mr. Rivera said. “Yes, I am going through one of the five stages of mourning–whether it’s denial, anger, negotiation, depression or acceptance–I’ve gotten to acceptance but I’ve gotten to the next step, which is: what is next? And what is next is making sure in January we go fight, full-throated.”

‘What Hostage-Taking Is All About’: City Democrats Rally for Rent Regulation