East Side Stories: Local Tenants' Group Launches

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Manhattan's well-heeled Upper East Side is not generally considered a hotbed of tenant discontent. Yet the neighborhood took a step toward upping its activist profile this weekend as 500 residents and advocates gathered at the Julia Richman Education Complex on East 67th Street to discuss local needs and how to address them.

The crowd of mostly senior citizens heard from officials and activists about the overlap of unique neighborhood concerns with broader initiatives. The educational forum came on the heels of a flurry of introductions of pro-tenant bills in Albany. A bill to repeal vacancy decontrol (S2237/A2005) was introduced in the senate earlier this month. According to the Real Rent Reform Campaign, which includes NYS Tenants & Neighbors, as many as 300,000 apartments have been removed from regulation since 1994 because of vacancy decontrol.

Those numbers are particularly meaningful in state Sen. Liz Krueger's district – the bulk of which runs from East 87th Street down to East 29th Street – which includes 71,173 rent-regulated units: 67,317 rent-stabilized units, and 3,867 rent-controlled units (out of citywide totals of 1 million and 43,000, respectively). Krueger, whose office hosted the event to launch the East Side Housing Coalition, called on the audience to organize to pressure their representatives. “I’m not the leader, I’m the target,” she said.

Other legislation to increase harassment fines against landlords and raise the threshold for high-income decontrol was introduced in the Assembly on Feb. 2.

In a discussion moderated by Village Voice columnist Tom Robbins, three panelists –veteran activist and Tenant PAC treasurer Michael McKee, Legal Aid lawyer and tenant representative to the Rent Guidelines Board Adrienne Holder, and new state Sen. Daniel Squadron from lower Manhattan – echoed Krueger’s call to organize.

“The number one issue is vacancy decontrol,” Squadron said to applause and nods. “As long as it exists you have all the other problems that come with it,” including stronger incentives to implement large Major Capital Improvement rent increases to push rent towards the $2,000 decontrol mark.

“I don’t know the answer about if it’ll get passed. I do know with organizing we have a real shot,” Squadron said. City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin of the Upper East Side, along with staff members of several other elected officials, also attended.

Holder, one of two tenant members on the Rent Guidelines Board, echoed the call for putting pressure on elected officials. “I can feel it – this is the year of change. We will push, we will target [the Democrats] who are not with us,” she said, referring to senate Housing Committee Chair Pedro Espada Jr., Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Sens. Carl Kruger and Jeffrey Klein – all Democrats from New York City – who have not signed on to S2237.