With rent laws set to expire, New York City tenants demand state of emergency

    Tenant activists have been trying for months to get Gov. Cuomo to support their campaign for rent regulation reforms, staging almost weekly demonstrations.
     Jonathan Westin, Executive Director of New York Communities for Change, at Thursday's rally. (WNV / Alex Ellefson)
    Jonathan Westin, Executive Director of New York Communities for Change, at Thursday’s rally. (WNV / Alex Ellefson)

    Housing advocates urged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency if regulations protecting almost 1 million affordable apartments are allowed to expire. Lawmakers in Albany have only four days to renew the rent laws and tenant rights groups called on Cuomo to accept nothing less from the state legislature than an overhaul of the current rules.

    “So many people in my neighborhood have been pushed out and evicted because of these weak rent laws,” Flatbush Tenant Coalition member Jean Folkes said during a rally outside City Hall on Thursday. “Brooklyn is becoming more expensive than Manhattan. They are coming to take it away from us. I’m begging Governor Cuomo, ‘Do the right thing.’”

    New York City Council members who attended the rally said they are willing to take control of the city’s rent-regulated apartments if state legislators fail to produce stronger protections for tenants.

    “We cannot accept a straight extension,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who heads the Committee on Housing and Buildings. Williams promised that any legislation passed by the City Council would “absolutely strengthen the rent laws.”

    By declaring a state of emergency, Cuomo has the power to suspend the 1971 Urstadt Law, which prohibits the city from passing rent regulations that are stricter than the state’s. With the Urstadt Law gone, the city government could impose its own, stronger rent laws.

    “We want Cuomo to consider that many people, particularly low- and middle-income people, are going to be subject to displacement and uncertainty if the regulations expire,” said Robert Desir, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which has joined the fight to protect tenants. “That’s what the rent laws are designed to protect against.”

    Cuomo warned in April that there would be “chaos in the real estate market” if rent regulations were not renewed. However, he argued that instability in Albany due to the federal corruption charges against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos made it unlikely that lawmakers could pass serious reforms.

    Cuomo’s comments infuriated tenant advocates. They argue that extending the current regulations would be a win for predatory landlords who have exploited loopholes in the existing laws to move hundreds of thousands of apartments out of the city’s affordable housing stock.

    “At the same time that [Cuomo] claims it will be mayhem if the rent laws expire, he throws cold water on anything getting done in Albany because of the corruption and scandals that have existed in Albany. We find that cowardly,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change.

    Tenant activists have been trying for months to get Cuomo to support their campaign. They have staged almost weekly demonstrations directed at the governor. Last week, 55 protesters were arrested alongside almost a dozen city and state politicians for participating in a sit-in outside Cuomo’s office in Albany.

    Tenant groups and their allies vow to hold Cuomo responsible if rent regulations are not reformed.

    “When the governor has wanted to pass things, he has been able to,” said Councilman Corey Johnson, who was one of the politicians arrested last week. “We have just a few days for the governor to work with the legislative leaders to strengthen the rent laws. Tinkering around the edges is not good enough.”

    On Saturday, with just over a week left before the rent laws expire, Cuomo penned an op-ed in the Daily News in which he expressed support for the reforms advocated by tenant rights groups: Repealing laws that allow landlords to hike rents by making renovations or getting tenants to vacate their apartments. Cuomo also said he would like to get rid of vacancy decontrol, which allows property owners to deregulate apartments if they can raise the monthly rent above $2,500.

    Protesters at City Hall on Thursday, however, found little comfort in Cuomo’s sudden support. “The rent laws expire on Monday. Today is Thursday,” said Delsenia Glover, campaign manager for the Alliance for Tenant Power. “We see no movement in Albany. So we think that this is a crisis situation for tenants in New York City. If the rent laws are not renewed, that means over 2 million tenants will just be out there floating.”

    Earlier Thursday morning, seven protesters were arrested outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office. They blocked the entrance to the building, while calling on the governor to pass stronger rent laws.

    “This is the mayhem that we’re talking about,” said Esteban Girón, a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union about the most recent arrests. “This is the sheer need that people have and the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s going to happen to our apartments on Monday.”

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