A coalition of tenant groups scored a major victory last week by pressuring Bronx Assemblymember Gloria Davis to drop her sponsorship of a landlord-drafted bill that would have required tenants to lay down rent deposits before having their cases heard in housing court.
The bill, strongly opposed by tenant advocates but sponsored by seven Bronx Democrats, was considered a key piece of the landlord lobby’s 1997 legislative agenda, which also includes the elimination of rent control and rent stabilization for two million New York City tenants.
Last Tuesday, Davis, a South Bronx Democrat, withdrew the bill, saying she hadn’t realized its implications when she signed on last June. “It would be extremely shortsighted to advocate for anything which might help someone else buttress their case for the dismantling of rent regulation,” Davis said in her written statement.
Tenant advocates said the Davis bill, which would require tenants to deposit back rent in a housing court accounts, would punish tenants who use rent strikes to address repair grievances. “It’s a rent-strike breaker,” said Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition.
“When tenants began to understand what this bill was about, they got really, really pissed off,” said Hazel Muira, housing director for the Neighborhood Initiatives Development Corporation in the Bronx. “For two months we built a coalition of tenants and pressured Davis. We won.”
Muira’s coalition includes NYSTNC, the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, South Bronx Action group, Legal Aid, the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes and tenants groups. Members also lobbied other Bronx assembly Democrats who signed onto the bill, including Carmen Arroyo, Aurelia Greene, Stephen Kaufman and Peter Rivera.
Legislators and aides, speaking off the record, said it was Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez–also a co-sponsor–who pushed hardest for the bill. Last spring, Ramirez organized a meeting between the Bronx delegation and a group of black and Latino landlords who submitted the main provisions of the bill. Calls to Ramirez’s office were not returned.
Despite the victory, tenant leaders fear the landlords and their Republican allies-Governor George Pataki and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno-will throw the rent deposit issue back on the table as a bargaining chip next June, when the city’s rent regulation laws expire. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves,” says Hazel Muira. “This isn’t the last time we’re going to have to fight this battle.”