Abigail Savitch-Lew

The Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance town hall on Wednesday December 13.


From the packed pews of Harlem’s First Bethel AME Church swelled a harmonious song. It might have been choir music, but for the strange words: “Cuomo, where are you? Cuomo, where are you? Hiding from the tenants.”

A group of tenants, public housing residents, and homeless New Yorkers gathered on Wednesday night for a town hall to demand Governor Andrew Cuomo make housing justice one of his top priorities in the coming 2018 session. Cuomo had been invited, but his office said he had a scheduling conflict, according to Delsenia Glover of Tenants and Neighbors.

The event was hosted by a new statewide coalition of community and advocacy organizations that formed this fall called the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. The coalition includes about a dozen organizations, including Make the Road New York, Metropolitan Council on Housing, Vocal New York, Take Back the Land Rochester, and others. Wednesday’s event was one in a series of town halls the coalition is hosting across the state.

“New Yorkers are fed up with the governor’s failed housing agenda, and we will not take it no more,” said Glover. She blamed Cuomo for weak rent laws, the deterioration of public housing, and the state’s swelling homeless crisis. About 63,000 people were sleeping in shelters in New York City this October, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Statewide there were about 88,000 homeless people in 2015.

Glover emphasized the importance of building a powerful alliance across the state, and also across different types of residents. “If you’re living in affordable housing, you’re not any different from the people across the street in public housing, or the people across the street living in rent-stabilized buildings.”

The organizations are bringing together the many campaigns they’ve been working on separately. Collectively, their demands include strengthening rent regulation laws, funding NYCHA and other public housing authorities, increasing taxes on the rich, adding tenant protections and support programs for upstate residents, increasing funding for supportive housing and creating a state rent subsidy, among others.

Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Saving the rent regulated stock

One of the coalition’s demands is improving the regulations governing the city’s rent stabilized housing stock. The state’s last update to the city’s rent regulation laws was in 2015 and expires in 2019, but advocates say there’s no need to wait until the law expires to pass reforms that will close loopholes and curb the city’s continuous loss of rent stabilized units. Since 1994, the city has lost over 150,000 rent-stabilized apartments, according to the Rent Guidelines Board’s May 2017 report.

This year, advocates are focused on fighting two specific problems: the vacancy bonus and preferential rents. Currently, landlords can increase the rent by 20 percent when an apartment is vacated (that’s true for a two-year lease; the bonus is slightly different for a one-year lease), which can incentivize landlords to harass and remove tenants. Once the legal rent on a vacant apartment exceeds $2,700, the apartment also becomes deregulated—no longer subject to the rent increase limits issued by the Rent Guidelines Board. The coalition wants to see vacancy bonuses eliminated.

The state’s 2003 preferential rent law allows landlords who are charging below the legal rent to hike the rent up to the legal amount whenever a tenant renews their lease—even if that increase far exceeds the rent rise permitted by the Rent Guidelines Board for that year. Beverly Newsome, from the tenant association at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field Apartments, said that about a third of apartments in the rent-stabilized apartment complex have preferential rents.

“We have tenants who are holding preferential leases, and at the end of their lease term, their rent could go up as much as $1,000 dollars [a month],” Newsome said, and she also described the way displacement has caused the complex to lose its tight-knit, communal feel. “So many of us are transitional.”

Under Cuomo’s watch, the state has made some reforms in response to tenant’s concerns. In 2015, among other changes, the threshold for deregulation was raised from $2,500 to $2,700, and the state legislated that when a landlord is using a preferential rent and then the tenant vacates, the landlord can’t take the roughly 20 percent vacancy bonus, but rather may have to take a smaller bonus depending on how long it’s been since the apartment was last vacant. Cuomo must also be credited for the creation of the Tenant Protection Unit, a law enforcement office that investigates landlord fraud.

The coalition, however, wants further reform: its members support a bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, that would prohibit landlords from ending a preferential rent when the tenant renewed their lease, and only allows landlords to end the preferential rent “upon a vacancy which is not the result of the failure of the owner to maintain a habitable residence.”

Renters beyond the city

The evening also brought to light the struggles of renters outside New York City. “The rental housing crisis is not just confined to New York City,” said T.J. Shivers, a Long Island New York Communities for Change member, explaining that upstate New Yorkers have far fewer tenant protections than downstaters.

While New York City has a high share of renters compared to most parts of the state—68 percent of units were occupied by renters according to 2016 census estimates—other large cities also are home to large percentages of renters, with more than 60 percent of apartments occupied by renters in Albany, Rochester, and Syracuse. And it’s certainly not just New Yorkers suffering from increased “rent burdening” (when a resident pays more than 30 percent of their income on rent). Between 2000 and 2015, rent burdening rose from 33 percent to 49 percent in New York City, from 28 percent to 44 percent in the Hudson Valley, and from 32 percent to 45 percent in Long Island, according to the Regional Plan Association.

Shivers called for the passage of “just cause eviction” laws, which could limit the circumstances under which landlords are allowed to evict their tenants, and the creation of more housing courts throughout the state. Vocal-NY members want to see the creation of a rent assistance program for individuals suffering from HIV outside of New York City (the city already provides assistance through the HIV/AIDS Services Administration or HASA). And the coalition is also pressing for statewide source of income protections to prevent landlords from discriminating against people that pay for housing with public assistance or housing vouchers. While New York City and some other local governments do have laws prohibiting income discrimination by landlords, there are no provisions statewide.

Crucial investments

Within New York City, what might seem like the one safe haven of affordability—public housing—is threatened by the dilapidation of the building stock itself. While in prior decades the state provided capital support for NYCHA, from 2001 to 2007, those contributions dropped from $15 million a year to zero. In 2016-2017, Cuomo provided NYCHA with $100 million in capital funds, and in 2017-2018, another $200 million in capital funds, according to a City Council brief. But, thanks also to federal disinvestment, NYCHA faces a backlog of $17 billion in capital repairs, according to the authority’s last Physical Needs Assessment, and tenants feel $300 million is not enough.

One NYCHA resident and member of Community Voices Heard spoke about how she had gone back to Puerto Rico to visit her dying father and had ended up suffering through Hurricane Maria.

“When I came back to New York, I found I came back to the same thing: an ongoing emergency in NYC public housing,” she said, enumerating problems like mold, no heat or hot water, and breaking pipes. “Mr. Governor, you went to Puerto Rica after Maria, but what about the Puerto Ricans living in public housing right here in the state? Governor Cuomo, we demand that you pass the millionaire’s tax, give $1 billion a year to NYCHA for healthy homes, and fully fund public housing across the state.”

While New York City is the largest public housing authority in North America with over 176,000 units in 2017, other cities in the state have smaller housing authorities, including Syracuse, Buffalo, Yonkers, and Troy, all of which have more than 1,250 public housing apartments, according to a 2010 report prepared for HUD. And NYCHA isn’t the only authority struggling to find ways to support its aging public housing stock and seeking to convert some buildings to Section 8 projects to secure private investment.

The group also wants Cuomo to speed up his plan to build 20,000 units of supportive housing (generally defined as housing for the homeless or at-risk of homelessness, with accompanying services) in 15 years. The 2017-2018 budget included about $1 billion for 6,000 units over five years, but advocates feel the Governor needs to move faster.

The advocates are also pushing for the passage of Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s proposed home stability support program, which would create a statewide rent supplement to help renters who qualify for public assistance avoid eviction. It would pay the difference between the shelter allowance provided by public assistance up to 85 percent of the federally-determined fair market rent (or up to 100 percent, at the option of the local government). As of 2016, there were 147,000 people on the waiting list for the federal section 8 subsidy.

And to pay for all these investments, the group is calling on the state to increase the “millionaire’s tax.” They’re not actually referring to the tax De Blasio is pushing, which would increase city-levied taxes for top earners to fund the transit system, but rather are calling on the state to increase the state-levied tax for top earners, generating new revenue they say could be used for affordable housing.

The political challenges

The coalition is up against several obstacles. Senator Krueger says that the passage of her bill reforming preferential rents and other progressive legislation depends on the ability of the Senate’s Democrats—including both the mainline Democrats and the breakaway group called the Independent Democratic Congress (IDC)—to unite, win two vacating seats, and secure the alliance of rogue Democrat Senator Simcha Felder, thereby gaining control of the Senate.

“John Flanagan won’t put the bill on the floor,” Krueger says, referring to the Republican majority leader who is currently the body’s leader. “The Republicans have been extremely consistent in their hostility to any tenant protections.”

She adds that she’d like to see “the governor more outspoken in favor of these tenant protections and of course he could always try to move these bills himself” by spearheading the passage of one of her bills or inserting them into his budget.

Another problem is that the federal tax bill is causing lawmakers to worry about their ability to pass stronger taxes in New York State, as wealthy New Yorkers are already flinching at the fact that their state and local taxes may no longer be deductible. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said he’s looking for a “creative way” to raise revenues, such as increasing taxes on millionaires who receive salaries through corporations, who would receive a tax cut under the federal plan, according to The Real Deal.

Of course, to the members of the coalition, the overall impact of the federal tax bill is further justification for raising state taxes. Paulette Soltani of Vocal-NY points to an analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute that found the Senate version of the federal tax bill would deliver tax increases to the bottom 60 percent of New York State earners and a “massive tax cut” to the wealthiest.

These challenges aren’t stopping the coalition from getting to work. They rallied outside the Governor’s birthday fundraiser on Thursday night (where “top-tier access” costs $50,000, according to the New York Times), are circulating a petition for their demands, and on January 3 will head up to Albany for further actions.

Harlem’s State Senator Brian Benjamin, who attended the town hall, told City Limits that he too will be pushing reforms to the vacancy bonus and preferential rents. He also said that tenants’ demand for more housing courts throughout the state was news to him, and he would investigate and possibly put forth a bill to remedy the issue.