Activists Push For New Senate Housing Chair

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Pedro Espada is the State Senator representing New York’s 33rd District in the northwest Bronx, as well as the Democratic Majority Leader. He’s also a businessman under investigation by the state attorney general for improper mixing of private and political funds – as well as one half of the Democratic team that brought the Senate to a halt in June by temporarily throwing its support to the Republicans (the other half being convicted domestic abuser Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens).

And he serves as chairman of the Senate’s Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee.

Right now, it’s that last fact that has affordable housing and tenant activists across the city up in arms. They’ve directed a barrage of calls and e-mails to Brooklyn Senator John Sampson, who holds the title of Democratic Conference Leader, urging him to remove Espada from the housing post. Earlier this month, Sampson reshuffled some committee chairs, installing Republicans George Maziarz, from the Rochester area, and Tom Morahan of Rockland County to head the committees on Energy and Telecommunications and Mental Health and Hygiene, respectively. Tenant activists saw an opening to push for Espada’s removal before the spring session got underway, says housing activist Michael McKee, the new executive director of Housing Here and Now (replacing Michelle O’Brien, who recently moved out of state).

But Espada, who is halfway through a two-year term as chairman, says he intends to retain his position. And, he points out to activists, he’s got a plan to freeze rents for rent-stabilized tenants making less than $45,000 a year. In a statement last week, Espada said that his plan for housing reform – which he intends to unveil completely by the end of the month – “would create an unprecedented rental assistance program that would freeze the rents of nearly 300,000 households.” The concept was first floated by outgoing Rent Guidelines Board Chairman Marvin Markus at a housing summit Espada sponsored last April.

But tenant advocates aren’t buying it. Just one year ago they were elated by the first Democratic Senate majority in years and saw a glimmer of hope for their agenda, only to have it dashed by how politics unfolded.

“He’s not interested in the needs of his constituents. My feeling is that he’s about Espada and nothing else,” said Joseph Ferdinand, a member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and one of those constituents. Ferdinand, who lives in the Mount Hope neighborhood, said the housing committee needs a new chairman because Espada hasn’t supported pro-tenant legislation like the repeal of vacancy decontrol for rent-regulated apartments.

“We’ve been trying to get Espada to sign on to [repealing] vacancy decontrol, and then last year, right when the bill was supposed to be introduced in the senate, that’s when he staged the coup,” said Ferdinand, referring to the machinations by which Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith became the Temporary President, and Espada became Majority Leader. “He’s an embarrassment.”

McKee said removing Espada is essential to getting pro-tenant bills passed. “We fear if he is chair of housing, he will bottle up all our bills until May and then do the landlords’ bidding,” McKee said. “We don’t intend to have a repeat of last year.”

As for how long the campaign to dump Espada will last, McKee said it’s indefinite. “When we are told, ‘Give it up, he’s going to keep Espada, a decision has been made,’ we’ll stop, but we haven’t been told that as of now,” McKee said Monday. So the e-mails and phone calls will keep making their way to Sampson. For now, tenants will keep their campaign focused on that, saving the pickets and bus rides to Albany until housing bills come up for a vote.

McKee acknowledged that it would be tough for Sampson – himself a survivor of the summer’s “coup” – to remove Espada. “We know John is in a bind. He needs 32 votes to do anything,” said McKee. “He has the whole Monserrate issue” – that is, whether to expel the violent Queens rep from the Senate – “but the more stuff that comes out [from the investigation], the more pressure there will be on Sampson to appoint someone other than Pedro.”

Maggie Russell-Ciardi, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, said hundreds of members have written and e-mailed Sampson. “It’s so essential that we have someone in that position who really understands the importance of affordable housing,” she said. “We understand that the political situation in Albany is very challenging, but we don’t want any more excuses. We need there to be immediate action on this.”

But she demurred on the question of who tenant activists would like to see chair the committee, saying only, “There are many people in Albany who really understand these issues who could provide real leadership.”

Sampson spokesman Austin Shafran would not comment on the matter, other than to point out that a chairmanship appointment lasts two years.

Tenant advocates are angry at Espada because he dashed their hopes for winning substantial housing reform last year by failing to bring key pro-tenant legislation to a vote, and instead defecting to the Republican party, which resulted in bringing the state’s business to a standstill.

Russell-Ciardi dismissed Espada’s rent freeze plan as beside the point, saying it failed to take into account the loss of associated tenant protections – not only the higher rent – that comes with vacancy decontrol, and the role vacancy decontrol played in ginning up the real estate market to its current state of too-common over-leveraging.

“I think we’re at a point that it shows he’s not really listening to us and to the entire housing movement in NYC. Espada has not been responsive at all,” she said. “Last year’s actions – orchestrating the coup – effectively prevented any progressive legislation from getting passed, including housing issues. And there is a real need for urgent action on our bills and we just can’t wait for that kind of nonsense.”

Tenants and Neighbors is one member of the Real Rent Reform Campaign, which backs three primary issues to be approved by the Senate: repealing vacancy decontrol, which would end the current practice under which rent regulated apartments go market rate, and lose a variety of tenant protections once rent reaches $2,000 a month and the tenant moves out; changing how major capital improvements are billed to tenants, when the landlord spends a considerable amount on a major repair or improvement – such as a new roof or refurbishing the lobby – and a permanent fee is added to each tenant’s rent, inching them closer to the $2,000 mark. Legislation supported by tenant advocates would change MCIs to a one-time surcharge; and tightening control over 1/40th increases, which are similar to MCIs but apply to individual apartments.

“There are other bills that have been proposed that we would love to see movement on as well,” Russell-Ciardi said. “But vacancy decontrol is really the linchpin. This entire destabilization of our housing stock due to predatory equity would not have happened if vacancy decontrol weren’t there as an incentive.”

Most advocates said they were unconcerned about damaging their relationship with Espada and being in an awkward position if he retains the seat. They said they would continue to lobby whoever holds the post.

– Eileen Markey

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