Where Is the Senate On Rent Regs Reform?

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State representatives for New York City are proposing, once again, radical changes to rent regulation laws in 10 bills pending in the state legislature. Aimed at keeping thousands more apartments within reach of average tenants, the bills strip away many provisions for landlords. On the table is everything from giving New York City government the final say over rent regulation, to eliminating “high-rent vacancy decontrol,” to curtailing how much landlords can collect for renovated apartments.

The bills’ passage in the Assembly wouldn’t be a surprise – they were all approved by the lower house in 2008. But with its newly elected Democratic majority, the state Senate could finally approve the package and send it to Gov. Paterson. The assembly vote is planned for Feb. 2, according to the office of Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the assembly housing chairman and sponsor of many of the bills.

Tenants and tenant activists are campaigning hard. Testimony on the proposed legislation was collected Jan. 16, when Lopez and other assembly members convened a hearing in lower Manhattan.

“Vacancy decontrol is the root cause of all the distortions that we now see in the downstate market,” testified Michael McKee of Tenants PAC. McKee, the treasurer of the tenants’ rights lobbying group, urged legislators to roll back vacancy decontrol, a state regulation permitting landlords to take a vacant apartment out of rent regulation once the rent hits $2,000 a month. In December, more than 600 New Yorkers rallied with legislators in support of the measure.

The vacancy decontrol bill is one of the most ambitious of the 10-bill package. Sponsored by Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, it would not only abolish the “high-rent vacancy decontrol” laws, but return some apartments lost under vacancy decontrol to rent control or rent stabilization. The law would make many apartments lost to vacancy decontrol since Jan. 1, 2007 eligible for their old rent.

Another potentially game-changing bill is Lopez’s legislation to repeal the so-called Urstadt Law – a frequent target of activists since it was enacted more than three decades ago. That repeal would undo the state provision that currently prohibits “cities of one million or more” – that’s Albany-speak for New York City – from making housing regulations that are more restrictive than the state’s. It would pave the way for the New York City Council to enact more tenant-friendly legislation, both pro-tenant and pro-landlord forces say.

Real estate owners fear anti-landlord regulations coming out of City Council. Speaking of an Urstadt repeal, Frank Ricci of New York City’s Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) said in an interview, “That would be disastrous.” Ricci, the director of government affairs for the landlord and property manager lobbying group, said City Council shouldn’t get the control now given to Albany legislators on rent regulations, because council would enact laws “against building owners.”

“They’re going to pander to tenant voters whenever they can,” he said.

At the Jan. 16 hearing, Ricci and other RSA representatives argued that New York City landlords have trouble covering their basic expenses and can’t endure higher costs. That was met with derision both from assembly members and members of the 80-strong audience packing the hearing room. Manhattan Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, however, told the RSA reps that while she doesn’t consider all landlords to be bad, an industry cannot police itself effectively.

At least one staffer for Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith, Derrick Davis, attended the hearing – but Smith isn’t offering his imprimatur. “I don’t know if he has a particular position yet,” spokesman Austin Shafran said this week. “The Senate hasn’t convened its housing committee as of yet so we will wait until that time to comment further.”

And the new housing committee chairman, Bronx Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., says the legislation is not a high priority; he and Lopez met Monday but did not discuss the package. Instead, Espada’s top priority is to counteract what he says is more than $200 million in housing funding cuts sought by the governor. “My first obligation is to try to restore that and add to it,” he said. Also high on his list are increasing the affordable housing stock and offering housing counseling.

The Assembly will pass the package of bills, estimated Lopez in an interview; Speaker Sheldon Silver is behind it. In fact, Silver is sponsoring one of the less controversial bills, a measure to increase penalties for tenant harassment used to vacate apartments.

The real estate lobby may not be a factor in the Assembly vote. Asked if the bills can pass the Assembly without the support of powerful lobbies RSA or the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), Lopez replied “yes.” But the Senate, with its slim 32-30 majority of Democrats, is a different matter.

“The groups that have their base in New York City really need to convince their representatives” in the senate, Lopez advised. Smith will have a voting battle ahead, he said: “Malcolm has a challenge – he needs every person to be there” on the Democratic side for a vote.

Organizer McKee is assured, however – chalking up any uncertainty to the calendar. “The senate is still getting organized. The committees aren’t functional,” he said Monday. Unlike in past years, “If you look at the senate Democratic conference, it is overwhelmingly on our side.”

Eliminating high-rent vacancy decontrol is the most important item, McKee said. On that bill, at the very least, “I am confident we can get this through the senate.”

– Rachel Nielsen

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