Not Dead Yet: Hopes For Housing Bills

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After spending four days in Albany last week, New York City tenant activist Michael McKee is heading back to the capitol for the third week of scrambling after the June 8 State Senate coup threw control to the Republicans and changed the outlook for many things – including housing legislation.

“Everything’s up in the air,” said McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, the tenant lobbying group, “and a lot depends on how the power struggle plays out.” Just weeks ago, he and his allies saw an ambitious pro-tenant agenda stalled by the senate Housing Committee chair, Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., as the Bronx rep hesitated to move legislation out of committee and on to a vote. Activists were eager to push far-reaching housing bills through a senate finally controlled by Democrats sympathetic to ramping up tenant protections and curbing landlord profit.

Then came the takeover by Espada, fellow Democrat Sen. Hiram Monserrate, and senate Republicans. With Monserrate’s return to the Democrats last week, causing a 31-31 deadlock, housing activists now face a senate that hasn’t voted on any bill for a fortnight. Now, they are pressing Gov. Paterson to include housing bills in the special session he is demanding the senate hold Tuesday.

On Sunday, Tenants PAC e-mailed Paterson’s office asking him to put three bills on the special session agenda: a bill for repealing vacancy decontrol (S2237-A), a bill for extending rent stabilization to apartment complexes withdrawing from the state’s Mitchell-Lama program and the federal government’s Section 8 program (S3326), and a bill for changing the Major Capital Improvements program (S745-A).

“We’re certainly not giving up on our legislative goals,” McKee told City Limits Sunday night.

Today, June 22, had been slated as the last day of the legislative session. But between a governor scolding the senate to work on Saturdays, Sundays and even the Fourth of July to finish the state’s business, and housing activists bringing vanloads of protestors into Albany this week, the battle over housing legislation is still roiling.

What will happen? Here’s what activists and others said they foresee:

• “Bills will be passed, and therefore deals will be made,” said Thomas Waters of Community Service Society of New York, which advocates for housing for poor New Yorkers. “I don’t think it’s over. I think tenants need to stay in,” said Waters, to continue to pressure politicians for tenant-friendly legislation.

A senior housing analyst at CSS, Waters has been working on the Mitchell-Lama PIE campaign (which stands for “Protection for tenants, Incentives for owners to stay in Mitchell-Lama, and Enforcement of the law”), to preserve the Mitchell-Lama rental apartment stock. This state program offers mortgage and interest incentives to building owners in exchange for locked-in low rents for hundreds of thousands of New York City residents, as well as residents elsewhere in New York. “For the PIE campaign, the top priorities are the Stewart-Cousins bill [to give rent stabilization to former Mitchell-Lama buildings] and the Mitchell-Lama buyout moratorium,” said Waters.

That legislation from Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Gary Pretlow in the Assembly, seeks to extend rent stabilization to all housing complexes removed by their owners from Mitchell-Lama or from the project-based Section 8 affordability program. More radically, it seeks to implement rent stabilization on properties that already have left the programs, no matter when they left. The bill is written for New York City and Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties.

The Mitchell-Lama buyout moratorium proposal would impose a temporary freeze on owners removing their complexes from the Mitchell-Lama program and thus raising rents.
Some Republican senators could get behind the repeal of vacancy decontrol – which sets out mechanisms for removing vacated apartments from rent stabilization – Waters surmises. In fact, Republican Sen. Frank Padavan of Queens is a co-sponsor of Stewart-Cousins’s bill. A Padavan spokesman said Friday that if the bill came to the senate floor, the senator “would not vote against it.”

Waters believes the legislation to repeal Urstadt is a different matter. That bill would strip away the so-called Urstadt provision, wresting control over rent regulation laws from Albany and giving it to New York City Council. Said Waters, “I would think that would be the harder one to pass, because that would be the state legislature saying they want all of the landlord [political funding] contributions to go to the City Council, instead of to them.”

Michael McKee has fatigue in his voice, but he isn’t quitting. Earlier this month he was quoted in the New York Observer as saying legislation favoring tenants was “dead” – but in an e-mail to tenants-rights supporters last week, he wrote that the pronouncement is now turned on its head because of the 31-31 split in the senate.

“Pro-tenant legislation is not dead,” he wrote, in bold for good measure.

Yesterday McKee said the vacancy decontrol repeal bill has a shot – if it comes up for a vote. “If we get it on the floor, I think we can pass it,” said McKee. But what are the chances of getting the bill to a vote? That’s the hard part, he said.

If the Democrats regain some political heft through a power-sharing agreement, then some legislation will come back into play, he predicted. According to McKee, the legislation to repeal vacancy decontrol “was the no. 1 bill” on Democrats’ priority list.

• “All of these bills have tremendous impact on the owners and on the tenants,” said Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association. The RSA, a lobbying group for landlords and property managers in New York City, says its 25,000 members are responsible for about 1 million of the city’s apartments.

Ricci, RSA’s director of government affairs, said in an interview last week, “I don’t know what’s going to pass this session. That’s a question for the senate.” He doubted, however, that the 31-31 split in the upper house would help the housing bills.

RSA President Joseph Strasburg has courted Sen. Espada’s support and connected him to Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos since Espada’s election to the senate last year, a New York Times report said last week.

• The Metropolitan Council on Housing is part of the Housing Here and Now coalition of affordable housing activists, which includes ACORN, Citywide Task Force on Housing Court, Working Families Party and scores of city, neighborhood and ethnic organizations. On its website, Housing Here and Now writes that it has focused “on one major fight: the repeal of vacancy decontrol to save New York’s rent regulated housing. If tenants win the repeal of vacancy decontrol, it will be our greatest victory in over 30 years.”

Met Council lead organizer Mario Mazzoni said, “We’re definitely pushing at this moment. We’re not throwing our hands up in defeat.”

Mazzoni said the Stewart-Cousins bill to extend rent stabilization to former Mitchell-Lama apartments is vital to preserving affordable rents in New York City . “You’re talking about tens of thousands of people left without protection,” he added, referring to Mitchell-Lama complexes occupied after 1974. Those buildings, unlike the earlier ones, are exempted from rent stabilization after leaving Mitchell-Lama.

Michelle O’Brien, executive director of Housing Here and Now, said it is “crucial” for the senate to bring the vacancy decontrol repeal bill to a vote on the floor. Thus far, it has been stuck in the senate housing committee. Putting the bill up for a vote is important, said O’Brien, because it will force the hand of senators who have been reluctant to support it. “There are a number of senators…who have told us, ‘You have my vote if it comes to the floor,’” says O’Brien.

Her group also wants “to actually have a litmus test” for the state senators, to gauge their support or lack thereof on pro-tenant issues. “Frankly, we want to see who our enemies are,” said O’Brien. Whether housing activists will pour contributions and volunteers into politicians’ election campaigns in the future will be determined by whether those politicians “demonstrate their support of us” with these housing bills, she said.

– Rachel Nielsen