New York City’s housing activists returned Tuesday night from a day of lobbying in Albany with a string of victories in the state Assembly. But the legislative agenda that groups like the Real Rent Reform Campaign and Tenants and Neighbors are pushing could easily die in the Senate housing committee, chaired by the much-investigated Bronx Democrat, Senator Pedro Espada.

The activists went to Albany for tenant lobby day, an annual ritual for which local tenants and affordable housing activists climb onto capitol-bound buses in the early morning and spend their day visiting members of the Senate and Assembly. They rally in legislative conference rooms and fill the halls of the statehouse with pro-tenant chants. It is an honored and stylized exercise.

A bill to repeal vacancy decontrol – housing activists’ chief priority – passed the Assembly that day, as did several bills relating to regulation of Mitchell Lama buildings. So did another bill that would place restrictions on landlord’s ability to attract tenants into stabilized apartments with a teaser rent, only to raise it upon renewal, a process that Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, says landlords use to edge apartments toward de-regulation.

But housing activists fear the bills have little hope of being taken up by the Senate, because they first have to pass through the Espada-chaired housing committee. Two pro-tenant bills that were set to get a hearing in the housing committee April 15 didn’t because Espada cancelled the hearing, saying the real estate industry should be given more time to review the bills. The next housing committee meeting is scheduled for May 10. Activists fear Espada will refuse to put Tuesday’s bills on the calendar, effectively running out the clock until the session ends in June. A spokesman for Espada did not respond to requests for comment.

Espada has a history of stymieing housing activists’ progress, activists say. “We went home empty-handed last year, and that is because of Espada,” says Michael McKee, executive director of Housing Here and Now, who like many housing activists had pinned hopes on the Democratic control of the state Senate in 2009. Instead, Espada led a coup that effectively shut down the government and landed him Senate majority leader.

Still, longtime activists say tenant lobby day is useful.

“I think that lobby days are important because the more and more people get together with the same goal in mind, the harder it is for people to get tired,” says Jaron Benjamin, a community organizer with New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN). NYCAHN registered a victory Tuesday when the Senate passed a bill that would restrict how much people living with AIDS and getting rental assistance from a New York City program can be charged.

Manhattan Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, who sponsored the successful Assembly vacancy decontrol repeal bill, says she loves to see constituents arrive on lobbying days. “I’m very happy when I see activists on any issue come up to Albany. I almost always meet directly with the people who come up,” she says. “They get to advocate directly on the issue they care about.

It gives strength back to us to continue to push these pro tenant bills. We kind of feed off each other.”
And seeing buses of dedicated voters has an impact, Rosenthal says. “Especially in an election year, it’s important for them to remind legislators that they don’t just come up,” she says. “They vote and they represent the thousands and thousands of people who vote on these issues.”

McKee has been part of tenant lobby day since 1972. He recalls sitting-in at the office of then-Senate majority leader Earl Bridges over vacancy decontrol. In the late 1940s tenants made their way to Albany on winding Route 9W to press for an extension of war-time rent regulation. Tenants eventually won, but state troopers turned them back at Poughkeepsie, McKee says.

McKee says tenant lobby day is important because it shows elected officials their constituents are passionate about issues and because it inspires the constituents. “It’s important to show the flag. But it is much more important what we do in the districts,” he says. As this legislative session nears its June 21 conclusion, Housing Here and Now plans to increase pressure on senators and assembly members in their home districts, McKee says.

Among the demands made Tuesday was a call for Brooklyn senator John Sampson, Democratic conference leader, to remove Espada from the housing committee. “We are not putting up with this,” McKee says Wednesday. “We have had it. If Sampson doesn’t do this, he can just forget about getting help from anyone in the tenant movement come November.” Activists want Espada removed because they blame him for stalling debate on pro-tenant bills last year, because he gets lots of contributions from the landlord lobby and because of his legal trouble.

Indeed, some of Espada’s own constituents want him removed. Those who came to tenant lobby day Tuesday delivered an eviction notice to his office and staged a raucous protest for over an hour, vociferously encouraging the senator to vacate not only the committee chairmanship but the Senate seat itself. “My feeling is that he is firmly in the hands of the landlords. He doesn’t advocate for the regular people in his district,” says Joseph Ferdinand, 57, a member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy coalition who lives in Espada’s district. Ferdinand was among the people who posted flyers near Espada’s office that read “Tenants are watching you” and danced and shouted insults at the senator’s office.