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As the city’s Rent Guidelines Board today begins its annual debates on whether and by how much landlords should be allowed to raise rents on stabilized apartments, a group of tenant advocates is pushing legislation to revamp the state’s rent laws, with the support of an unexpected ally.

Mayoral hopeful Alan Hevesi, the city’s comptroller, convened the group a year and a half ago to draft an omnibus tenant protection bill to help unify tenants for the rent regulation debate in Albany in 2003, when the laws are up for renewal.

“It’s a wish list, an aggressive posture that we hope will expand the envelope of what is possible,” said Ben Dulchin of the Fifth Avenue Committee, whose partners in this plan include New York State Tenants and Neighbors, Metropolitan Council on Housing and the City-wide Task Force on Housing Court.

The bill moves to expand the stock of rent-regulated apartments by repealing vacancy decontrol, passed in 1997 to allow landlords to raise rents to market rate once a tenant moves out of a rent-regulated apartment. The legislation also extends rent regs to three- to five-unit buildings that are not owner-occupied (the law now applies to buildings with six or more units) and to Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 housing built after 1973.

As for protecting tenants from harassment, the advocates’ bill would require landlords of unregulated buildings to show good cause for making evictions, and building owners with code violations on record would be prohibited from filing eviction proceedings against tenants. Rent increases based on major capital improvements would only be temporary, and tenants would be permitted to look more than four years into their rent history to file an overcharge complaint. Finally, New York City would get home rule over its rent laws with a repeal of the Urstadt Law.

While the group is not optimistic that its wish list will pass both houses in Albany–proposals to make similar changes have tried and failed in the past–its members do hope it will serve as the uniting force for tenant groups that suffered a split during the 1997 fight over rent control.

How much the issue will play out in the mayoral race remains to be seen. While Hevesi did convene this group, and his staff helped draft the bill, the comptroller was the only one of the four Democratic candidates to admit at a mayoral forum last spring that housing did not top his agenda. “They invited us,” said task force director Jodi Horowitz, “but how it fits into politics I don’t know.”

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