New York State’s rent regulation laws, a critical source of affordable housing in the state, are set to expire on June 15. Tenants & Neighbors, an NLIHC State Coalition Partner, and other advocates have formed the Alliance for Tenant Power, a coalition working to renew and strengthen the laws. The outcome of the group’s efforts will be critical for the future of affordable housing in the state, especially in New York City.
New York’s system of rent regulation is the oldest in the U.S. Restrictions on rents first began in New York City amid a housing shortage during World War I. The system has gone through many iterations over the past century and has been weakened several times. Advocates say there is a need to reform and strengthen the system. They are working to ensure renewal of rent laws, as well as advance a comprehensive set of changes.
A top priority for the coalition is the repeal of vacancy decontrol. Under vacancy decontrol, when the monthly rent of a regulated unit reaches $2,500 and the unit becomes vacant it is no longer subject to rent regulation and the rent automatically becomes market-rate. Vacancy decontrol gives owners an incentive to increase rents up to the $2,500 threshold.
Current rent laws give landlords a number of mechanisms for increasing rents:
- Applying the annual increases decided by each jurisdiction’s Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), see Memo, 8/4/2014.
- Obtaining permanent rent increases based on building-wide major capital improvement (MCI) costs as well as costs from individual apartment repairs.
- Increasing a unit’s rent by 20% upon vacancy (“vacancy allowance”) and by additional increases after long-time tenants move out of regulated units (“vacancy bonus”).
Rent increases pose problems in their own right, but also are a dangerous way to achieve deregulation of units. “The end game is vacancy decontrol,” said Katie Goldstein, Tenants & Neighbors’ Executive Director. “It further motivates landlords to increase rents, and the rent laws currently provide them many ways of doing that.”
The Alliance for Tenant Power is pushing for a sweeping set of changes in addition to repeal of vacancy decontrol. Tenants want a better regulated individual apartment improvement system. They also want changes to MCI increases, turning them from permanent rent increases to temporary surcharges. The coalition is also urging increased protections for tenants who receive preferential rents. Landlords can charge lower, preferential rents when the legal regulated rent is higher than the market will bear due to vacancy bonuses, improvement increases, and annual RGB increases. However, upon lease renewal, landlords can decide to raise rents all the way up to the legal limit, causing substantial increases for tenants. Advocates argue that landlords should only be allowed to impose such increases upon vacancy. The group’s legislative platform also includes an end to discrimination based on lawful source of income (such as a housing choice voucher) throughout the state. New York City passed a ban on source of income discrimination in 2008.
Tenants & Neighbors has been meeting with allies in the housing movement and in the state legislature since last year, and has engaged affordable housing groups outside of the New York City metro area in order to increase the scope of pressure on lawmakers in the state capitol in Albany. The message to legislators is that a failure to make significant reforms, or worse, renew the rent laws altogether, would spell disaster for the future of affordable housing and of diverse and livable communities in New York City.
“This is a make or break year,” said Ms. Goldstein. “Tenants struggle with rising rents that have outpaced cost of living increases in income, and the windfalls that can come from deregulating units lead to harassment and fraud. More and more, low income people can’t afford to live in the city – not just in Manhattan, but in the outer boroughs too. Legislators have got to recognize that and make a change.”
For more information, contact Katie Goldstein, Executive Director, Tenants & Neighbors, at email@example.com.