A fictional lawyer once told a fictional jury that his religion instructed believers, “Act as if ye had faith, and faith will be given to you.” This is pretty much what tenant advocates and the elected officials who support them have to do now that Republicans are set to control the state Senate when rent regulations come up for renewal in June.
“We can make the case—if we pack Albany, if we pack buses. If we organize, organize,” said Public Advocate Letitia James at a rally Tuesday morning on the windswept plaza in from of City Hall. “If we let people know what is at stake in this city, we will win.”
Going into the elections, tenant advocates hoped to strengthen rent regulations, aiming to kill off features like vacancy decontrol that have helped shave 100,000 or so units from the system in the past decade. City Hall and some elected officials wanted even more—namely, the repeal of the Urstadt Law that prevents the city from adjusting its own rent regulations.
Even under the best of circumstances, either goal was going to involve an uphill battle in Albany. The November 4 results turned that steep hill into a sheer cliff. But people do climb cliffs, and tenant advocates have to give it a shot if only to preserve the system that exists now and avoid getting one with even wider loopholes.
“Home rule now! Home rule now!” chanted Brooklyn Councilmember and Housing Committee chairman Jumaane Williams. “That’s the No. 1 thing we can do to preserve rent regulations and I believe it is within our grasp.” Local control, Williams said, is an idea “as Republican as apple pie” but the party has opposed it because of campaign contributions it gets from property owners and their lobbyists. “We have to get past that.”
Practically speaking, tenant advocates’ hopes hinge on two men: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who will be two of the three men in a room when the deals are hashed out next spring on rent regs, a host of real-estate tax breaks, the budget, mayoral control of schools—basically everything but the color of the state flag.
Silver’s support for tenant issues is known; the question is whether he’ll be a tough enough negotiator. The governor, on the other hand, is a total wild card.
“The governor of the state of New York has to have this at the top of his agenda,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams told the crowd. The Senate may be lost, Adams said, but “we have two of the three.” He added: “We need to know where the governor is on this issue.”
Tenant advocates candidly acknowledge that they don’t have pure political power on their side. So they have to rely on the strength of their argument and their organizing—and hope that those are enough because, let’s face it, the stakes are too high for fatalism. As State Sen. Liz Krueger put it: “If we can’t protect and expand affordable housing, then every other issue collapses into itself.”
That quote about faith, by the way, is as fictional as the lawyer who uttered; it doesn’t exist in any scripture, unless you consider the script for “The Verdict” a religious text. But there’s truth in it. I mean, where else would faith come from?