Tenants' fight to strengthen New York's rent laws took a step forward last week, when a handful of Republican senators introduced a bill that would extend rent regulations through 2008 and eliminate vacancy decontrol, a contentious rule which allows landlords to destabilize apartments once rents reach $2,000.
"Repeal of vacancy decontrol is necessary simply to preserve the rent regulation system," Senator Frank Padavan of Queens, the bill's sponsor, wrote in the legislation. Noting that a recent study found that more than 100,000 apartments have been deregulated over the last few years, Padavan concluded: "High-rent vacancy decontrol has become de facto full vacancy decontrol." Republicans Nick Spano of Westchester, and Olga Mendez and Guy Velella of the Bronx are also sponsoring the bill.
The legislation, while not entirely unexpected, was welcomed by advocates who have been pushing the state legislature to create more protections for tenants since the current rent laws passed in 1997. In February, the Democrat-led state Assembly passed an identical bill with the support of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Both bills also call for limiting the number of apartments a landlord can clear to use for himself or for his family, known as "personal-use" evictions. They attempt to protect residents of Mitchell-Lama buildings, as well, by requiring that these properties become rent stabilized once an owner buys out of the state-subsidized program.
The senate bill "won't reverse all of the problems from 1997, but it stands up to some of the worst ones," said Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who supports Padavan's bill and is sponsoring a similar one of her own.
Property owners see it differently: "This bill clearly doesn't help the poor," said Dan Margulies of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a coalition of apartment building owners. "To think that people who can afford $2,000 or more in rent need extra protections. This isn't going anywhere in the senate."
Not even the biggest optimists expect the senate bill to pass as-is. While it has tremendous support among Democrats, many Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, want to simply extend the current laws.
But since the Padavan bill is sponsored by Republicans, it is expected to at least open the door to negotiations among Silver, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Governor George Pataki.
"This is a very good start for a negotiating point," said Brian Honan, legislative director for New York State Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide advocacy group. "Now the three leaders will get together and compromise."
The bill currently sits in the Senate's Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee. Bruno has said he will not touch rent regulations until the legislature decides on a budget. While Padavan's counsel, Charles Assini, said the senator hopes the bill will make it to the senate floor for a vote before the laws expire on June 15, he was not altogether confident: "This is not a given."