As Deadline Nears, A Final Push for Stronger Rent Laws

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Bronx legislators at a rally for stronger rent laws on Thursday (photos by J. Evelly)

Housing advocates and local elected officials are making a last-ditch campaign to strengthen the state’s rent laws, which technically expire on Wednesday. Just this afternoon, dozens of protesters-among them Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Harlem State Sen. Bill Perkins-were arrested for blocking the entrance to Gov. Cuomo's office during a rowdy rally.

The Emergency Tenant Protection Act guarantees rent-stabilized status for over a million apartments across the city, and hundred of thousands in the Bronx. Sunday night, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos moved to extend the law’s deadline to this Friday, June 17, in the event that a deal isn’t reached before Wednesday.

For months, pro-tenant groups and local politicians have been rallying to see that the law is not only renewed, which is likely to happen, but also strengthened-including the repeal of vacancy decontrol, the provision which deregulates apartments once they are vacated if the rent exceeds $2,000 a month.

“I would consider a straight renewal a defeat,” said Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, in a phone interview from Albany.

At stake over the next two days, says Dinowitz and others, is the future of affordable housing in a city where it’s become increasingly rare, and where living costs are becoming largely unsustainable for the working class.

“When everyone else fled our borough, these residents stayed, and they deserve to stay,” said Bronx Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson at a rally last Thursday. “Do not price us out of our communities.”

Since vacancy decontrol was established in 1993, housing groups say that some 300,000 affordable apartments have been deregulated in the city and its neighboring counties, a loss that’s been coupled in recent years with the expiration of Mitchell-Lama housing and a freeze on section 8 subsidies.

“All we have left are rent stabilized apartments,” Gibson said.

The assemblywoman and a group of other local elected officials held a vigil last Thursday on the Steps of the Bronx County Courthouse, holding signs and speaking passionately before a group of reporters, as an afternoon thunderstorm approached and strong winds whipped up clouds of dust.

“We stand here tonight, in the heat, because we know this is a matter of life and death,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., told the crowd, calling the rent debate in Albany “political ping pong.”

This week, as the state legislature enters its final session of the year before adjourning until January, the Senate and Assembly have several other high-profile issues to tackle, including same-sex marriage legislation, ethics reform and a property tax cap.

Pro-tenant groups had previously hoped Gov. Andrew Cuomo would include some rent provisions in his budget deal, which he failed to do, despite stating that he supports stronger rent laws.

A housing bill that’s favored by advocacy groups—which repeals vacancy decontrol, brings former Mitchell Lama and Section 8 apartments under regulation and raises the rent threshold for destabilization, among other provisions—has already been passed by the Assembly.

But getting the Republican-controlled State Senate to agree to similar terms is a daunting task. Majority Leader Skelos has indicated he’d prefer the existing laws are extended, as is, without an expansion.

“The Senate Republicans are hoping we get so desperate, we’ll say yes to anything,” Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro said last week.