The man who presides over the contentious annual meetings where rent increases are set for the city’s rent-regulated apartments announced last week that the regulatory framework is due for an overhaul.

Rent Guidelines Board Chairman Marvin Markus, sitting on a panel at the “Affordable Housing Summit” convened by Bronx State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., proposed a rent regulation system based on income, to safeguard poor tenants and exclude wealthy ones from the system.

With that, Markus became the speaker to most directly address the concerns about the rent regulation system that have tenant advocates up in arms, and that partly motivated Espada – the relatively new chairman of the senate’s Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee – to hold the conference at NYU on April 30. But though the senator has avoided taking a strong stance on a number of affordable housing issues – emphasizing, at Thursday’s event, his chamber’s position as “the upper house, the deliberative house” – Markus took a step toward supporting advocates’ claims that existing laws are basically hurting low-income tenants.

Markus, the RGB chair for the seven years of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure (plus four years under Mayor Ed Koch), spoke up in favor of rent regulation, because it helps ensure “security of tenure,” or making sure that tenants can renew leases and stay in their neighborhoods. In fact, Markus called security of tenure the “key component” making rent regulation important to New York City. He said the entire rent regulation system would be better, however, “if the system tolerated an income-based approach,” and he pointed to the city’s voluntary rent-assistance programs for elderly and disabled tenants, SCRIE and DRIE, as models.

Markus also lambasted the system of high-rent decontrol, or “luxury decontrol,” which deregulates occupied apartments where the rent is $2,000 or more per month and the household income of the tenants is more than $175,000 a year for two years. Under the current guidelines, “if you’re Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and you pay $1,100, you can stay” in a rent-regulated apartment, Markus told the audience. Markus said he wants public officials – including Sen. Espada – to “make significant changes” to the rent guidelines system. Markus took pains to make clear that his views are his own, not those of the RGB, the mayor, or Goldman Sachs, where he is a managing director working in municipal bonds.

A luxury decontrol adjustment is part of the 10-bill package passed by the assembly this winter, now awaiting action in the senate. A vacancy decontrol repeal is also at stake in the legislation. Vacancy decontrol regulations currently allow landlords to make repairs to a vacant apartment, claim the renovated apartment now is worth $2,000 or more in monthly rent, and use the increased rent as the basis for removing the apartment from the rent regulation system.
But Espada is still withholding clear support or objection to any of the 10 pro-tenant housing bills, including a return of home rule on housing issues from the state to the city level, and increased protections on some Mitchell-Lama units, that have landed in his housing committee. He has indicated through the agenda of the housing conference, and through prior statements on his website and to the media, that he sets his own agenda. Regarding the package of 10 bills, “we’re looking at every one of them,” Espada said in an interview following the conference. He said he doesn’t know if the vacancy decontrol repeal, a measure that tenant advocates consider vital to preserving the rent regulation and affordable housing systems in New York City, will pass.

Both Espada and the office of Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith have said the party conference – all 32 Democrats in the senate – need to meet and discuss potential housing legislation before a vote. Smith spokesman Austin Shafran said Friday the 10 bills have not been discussed by the conference, and no date is set for such a meeting. Shafran also said that a scheduling conflict led Smith to miss the summit, despite being listed as a speaker.

The day’s panels highlighted issues that Espada has said rate highly with him – using low-income tax credits to construct low-income housing in New York City, altering the rent regulation system, and safeguarding homeowners from the worst of the foreclosure crisis.

“Investment in affordable housing is not some social service program … But affordable housing is truly unique in that it is an economic engine,” he said. Last week’s meeting, he says, is the beginning of a series of public hearings and forums on housing issues that will be used to inform his committee’s work (but dates have not been set yet).

Summit panelists came from NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and its Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR). Panelists also included Judith Calogero, the commissioner of DHCR under former Gov. George Pataki; Judith Goldiner, a supervising attorney from the Legal Aid Society; Anne Soja, the president of First Sterling, an affordable housing tax credit syndication firm; and Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress. The Citizens Housing and Planning Council, Neighborhood Housing Services, and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, all organizations devoted to tenant, neighborhood or homeowner protection, also sent panelists for the foreclosure assistance panel.
Michelle O’Brien, executive director of Housing Here and Now and director of the New York Is Our Home campaign that’s working to pass the 10-bill package through the legislature, attended the summit and later called it “shocking” that Espada still does not support the repeal of vacancy decontrol.

“Overall, it seemed the summit placed an emphasis on the interests of private equity firms and landlords, despite the pretense of being balanced,” maintained O’Brien, who also was skeptical of Markus’ regulatory critique. “We’d really like to see the senate housing committee taking bold leadership… and they’ve largely failed to do that.”

Another metro area tenants’ group, Tenants PAC, used a break during the event to place piles of bright yellow flyers on conferees’ tables. The flyers bashed Espada for his legal problems, unreported campaign contributions and Bronx residency issue. One side of the flyer reprinted a recent scathing editorial from the Daily News, while the other side had an attack and a photo of a buffoonish Espada with the headline, “Senator Espada is no friend to tenants.” Counter-protest flyers are a rare occurrence, even at New York’s often volatile housing rallies and conferences.

Reached by phone about the flyers, Michael McKee of Tenants PAC said he knew of them but did not attend the conference because he was at an RGB meeting on Thursday. He labeled Espada “the enemy of the tenant movement.” The senator didn’t know of the flyers until after the conference, when he was shown one by City Limits. “It doesn’t deserve a response,” he said.

– Rachel Nielsen