Karen Baicker is the prototype of the lucky rent-stabilized tenant. She pays less than $500 to live in a spacious apartment on lower Fifth Avenue in Chelsea. Her rent is well below market rate–which would be in the thousands–but she has paid in other ways. Losing heat or hot water for more than 30 days during the brutal winter of 1995-96 was just the beginning. By last fall, there were 120 outstanding violations on her landmarked building.
“The electricity was also out in the entire common space. And we had no intercom. That went on for at least a month,” Baicker, a mother of two small children, says.
But because she's covered by the rent stabilization laws, Baicker was able to file a harassment claim with the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR)–a charge her landlord denies. Now the agency is at least moni-toring her situation.
“It's gotten better,” Baicker says. “I think that harassment case made an impact. They did put a new boiler in, and there are now people that clean the building, which hadn't happened in eight months.”
Everyone knows the state rent regulation laws–which keep rents capped for over a million New Yorkers–are under attack by GOP State Senate boss Joseph Bruno. But few tenants–Baicker among them–realize that Republicans are also trying to eliminate vital protections and rights that are also written into the laws.
The rent law allows tenants to sue their landlords for repairs without having to worry about being booted out on the street in retaliation; gives them protection against harassment and overcharging; and prevents landlords from gutting a building's amenities to encourage low-rent tenants to leave.
“These protections are as important, if not more important, than the rent-setting parts of the law,” says Sam Himmeistein, a tenant lawyer who is an expert on rent reg-ulation law.
The danger, tenant lobbyists say, is that Bruno and Governor George Pataki will quietly try to weaken these protections as part of a brokered “compromise” that preserves current rent levels.
Even without the rent-hike protection, New York's rent regulation laws are, arguably, the strongest and most clearly-articulated tenant protections in the nation.
The cornerstone of the law is thern right to lease renewal. Landlords of rent stabilized buildings are required to deliver a renewal lease to their tenants every one or two years. The owners are also required to maintain the same level of services–elevators, intercoms, even luxury amenities like swimming pools or parking garages–that buildings had before they went under rent regulations.
Owners don't have much choice in the matter. They must offer a renewal unless they can prove their tenants are deadbeats or that they're illegally subletting for profit. DHCR also grants rare exemptions if a landlord's relatives need to move in.
This guarantee of a lease renewal is key. Without it, the rent stabilization and control systems would be useless. In effect, it creates a right of tenancy that competes with the owners' right to use their property in any way they want. That's why rent protection is intrinsic to the rent regulation: without one, the other doesn't work. “If you're not offered a lease, then the rate at which you're not offered it is meaningless,” explains Frank Braconi, a housing researcher.
Tenant Aisha Collins, a Clinton Hill resident who has been locked in a 12-year struggle with her landlords, puts it more directly, “Thank God for rent protections.”
Like Baicker, Collins has pressed her case with DHCR and seen one change in her building's conditions as a result: the installation of functioning mailboxes in her lobby for the first time in years. Collins believes she achieved this small but significant victory because her landlord was legally bound to renew her lease year after year.
Without the tenancy right, says lawyer Ken Rosenfeld, a tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board, tenants would be unwilling to press complaints against bad landlords for fear of not having their lease renewed. “If I don't get heat, for example, I might think twice about com-plaining,” he says. “If my landlord doesn't like me, he can decide not to renew. I might not want to be considered a pain in the neck.”
The law also requires that landlords certify that their buildings provide basic services: common-area lighting, major appliances, a superintendent, and, most important, heat and hot water–before they are granted sanctioned rent increases. And tenants are entitled to an explanation of how their rent is calculated.
All of these requirements are cross-stitched into a patchwork of regulations, written by different legislative classes and translated into the DHCR's arcane code of regulations. It is the bane of landlords, who are eager to simplify their lives and boost their income.
“[These] parts of the rent control laws are very difficult for landlords to deal with, they're unfair, and they should be changed to promote development in the city,” says Myron Altschuler, a partner in one of the city's largest landlord law firms. “Over the years, I've had many clients leave state because they're tired of dealing with the complexities of the rent laws.”
But most landlords have stayed in town. Many of them have vigorously supported Bruno's December pledge to “end rent regulations as we know it”–and lavished him with campaign contributions.
In April, Bruno backed a little off his harshest rhetoric, telling city Democrats he planned to cut a “compromise” on vacancy decontrol. In an April AM-radio conversation with former mayor Ed Koch, Bruno said he would accept the decontrol of all rent-regulated apartments as they become vacant in lieu of his prior commitment to let the rent laws completely lapse on June 15.
At around the same time, Bruno told reporters he wanted to kill the lease renewal law. He also said he would try to do away with state regulations guaranteeing “succession”–the state mandate permitting family members or domestic partners to inherit rent-stabilized apartments from leaseholders who die or move out.
“Common sense tells me that if I don't own something, then I shouldn't have the right to will it to someone else,” Bruno said.
But it was the Koch-culled vacancy decontrol comment that brought Bruno the headlines. It also brought the voluble senate leader into line with fellow Republicans Al D'Amato and George Pataki who have called for various forms of vacancy decontrol. “And what's wrong with vacancy decontrol?” Koch asked City Limits.
Everything, tenants say. For one, it would mean the slow but steady death of the whole system–achieving Bruno's master plan within a decade. And if the GOP succeeds in its goal of combining vacancy decontrol and the elimination of the right to a lease renewal, the system would effectively end within a year or two. Landlords could simply choose not to renew the leases of tenants with low stabilized rents, replacing them with people willing to pay top dollar.
The changes could also lead to an unprecedented campaign of harassment from landlords eager to rid their building of low-income tenants.
Bruno has said he would take unspecified steps to combat harassment. But killing the anti-harassment provisions contained in the main regulation law will mean tenants lose the only civil-code protections against tenant harassment on the books, lawyers say. “There is no general harassment statute on the books outside of the rent laws,” Himmeistein says. “There's a common-law right not to be harassed, but you have a much better case if you use the rent laws to bring harassment cases.”
Harassment isn't easy to prove under rent regs; tenants must establish a pattern of bad landlord behavior. But if the laws are eliminated–or just tenant advocates fear landlords will be emboldened to use illegal tactics to drive tenants out: direct threats, changing the locks, noisy pseudo-repairs, or simply letting the buildings run down to the point where frustrated tenants pick up and leave.
Tenant advocates say that's exactly what happened when the system was deregulated in the early 1970s. Between 1971 and 1974, 388,000 apartments became deregulated under vacancy decontrol. A special 1974 governor's commission that led to the re-adoption of rent regs found that the decontrol had resulted in massive displacement and hardship for city tenants. Rents citywide had increased by 50 percent, on average, while landlord expenses had climbed only 7.9 percent.
But the figure that tenants point to is the fall in landlord outlays. Expenditures for service, repairs and maintenance decreased by 30 percent in that time period–despite the fact that owners were raking in greater profits.
Many advocates think the cuts in landlord spending were a hidden form of harassment that will be occur again if indiscriminate vacancy decontrol wins the day.
“The thought at the time was to get off landlords' backs, to allow them more money,” says Ann Pasmanick, executive director of the Community Training and Resource Center. “But they didn't perform any better. Vacancy decontrol is an experiment we've already learned from.”
Additional reporting by Glenn Thrush.