Rent regs fight in home stretch | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Rent regs fight in home stretch

BY ROSLYN KRAMER | As the legislative session winds down for a mid-June finish when rent control and stabilization are up for renewal, the Republican-dominated state Senate continues its illustrious tradition of subverting tenant protection.

Yes, existing tenant protection laws would stay in place, but so would the overlay of legislative tweaks added over time, transforming laws giving tenants housing security and stability into profits for landlords.

For instance, tenants currently must compensate landlords for major capital improvements, or M.C.I.’s — say, new windows or a lobby renovation — by paying an add-on to their rent. The problem: The add-on in effect is a permanent rent increase, since it doesn’t terminate when the actual cost of the improvement is paid for.

The rent-stabilization process itself has been problematic from its start, since tenants must pay annual rent increases set by the Rent Guidelines Board, a system tenant advocates say is biased against tenants; for one thing, because workers’ raises are lower than their rent increases.

But however imperfect the stabilization system is, tenants are protected. That is, until rents hit $2,000 a month, which opens up apartments for so-called vacancy decontrol. Helping landlords push rents up toward the decontrol mark, they can raise rents 20 percent on a vacant unit for an incoming tenant.

“The G.O.P. wants a straight extension of existing laws,” summed up Anderson Fils-Aime of the Real Rent Reform Campaign, the lead speaker at a June 6 meeting on rent regulation at the Hudson Guild Fulton Center on Ninth Ave. in Chelsea.

By contrast, he said of the rent laws, “We want them strengthened. Since 1997, when vacancy decontrol was instituted, 300,000 apartments were lost,” he explained. “But the devastation of communities is much worse.

“Rent regulations have allowed diversity; low-income people live with neighbors with six-figure incomes,” he noted. As a result, proximity breeds empathy and a sense of community. And as tenants lose their apartments and move, local businesses close, too, affecting the community economy.

“This is about the soul of our city,” said Fils-Aime, who attributed his family’s entry into the middle class to, as he put it, “our rent-controlled housing that couldn’t be taken away.”

Up in Albany, meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Assembly has already passed an omnibus housing protection law. But the Urstadt Law, wiping out city home rule over housing lawmaking, has given control over city housing laws to the state Legislature, most critically to the conservative-dominated, tenant-disenfranchising Senate.

Doing away with the Urstadt Law is a priority for city housing advocates this month.

“Laws need to be decided by people who live in the community, not Dean Skelos, said Fils-Aime, referring to the Republican Senate majority leader.

“The G.O.P. state Senate won’t have anything to do with us,” Fils-Aime said flatly. “The leverage point is the governor, who says he wants to strengthen rent laws.”

Linda Rivera, a third-generation Chelsea resident, reminded the sparse audience, “Where you sit now were slaughterhouses,” and that tenants living in the pre-Fulton Houses, long-ago slums had to use outdoor toilets.

Pointing to the picture of a clenched fist on a Chelsea Coalition banner, she gave a rousing reminder to her audience that the fist “was a symbol of labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights. Open your mouth,” she exhorted them.

The Rent Guidelines Board has two upcoming meetings at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, 7 E. Seventh St: a public hearing on Mon., June 20, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and the R.G.B.’s final vote on Mon., June 27, starting at 5:30 p.m. (rally at 4:30 p.m.)