Tenant Breakthrough in New York State on Rent Control

Katy Murphy – Bay Area News Group

New Orleans        For tenant activists and organizers around the country and the world, rent control, real rent control, often seems like gold at the end of the rainbow, almost a mirage, certainly unattainable, and perhaps not worth the struggle.  New York City has long been a beacon for tenants trying to win such protections, even if the light from those policies has been flickering and rising rents have made the divide between landlords and tenants unbridgeable.  Overcoming fierce opposition by landlord lobbyists and decades of erosion of protection in the one-million rent-regulated apartments in New York City and a loss of tens of thousands of affordable housing units, a coalition of tenant advocates and organizations, Housing Justice for All, managed to win a historic agreement that would strengthen rather than weaken the rules.  This is huge!

Here are key elements of the final agreement worth noting:

  • Rent control would be expanded statewide offering cities and towns the ability to create their own rent control policies.
  • So-called “vacancy decontrol” would be abolished.This provision had allowed landlords to take units out of rent protections after rents passed a specified benchmark.  The New York Times noted that 155,000 units had been lost in the last 30 years due to this provision.
  • The so-called “vacancy bonus” would be abolished.This provision had enabled landlords to skyrocket the rents by 20% whenever a tenant vacated a rent-controlled unit.
  • Provisions were strengthened to provide tools to tenants to fight reno-raises, as I would call them, which are increases imposed by landlords when they renovate units or make improvements in the building, some of which were little more than cosmetic, but allowed rents to be gentrified, a problem we see around the world.
  • Rent discounts called “preferential rents” would be made permanent preventing huge bumps when a rent control tenant renews a lease.

I understand we’re in the weeds here, but watching what happens to the real estate market for tenants in New York in the next couple of years will be critically important.  If it works, as we believe it should, and it expands to cities and towns from Buffalo to Syracuse to wherever in New York State, it may serve even more successfully as a model for tenant victories in the future where the special, sui generis nature of the big Apple itself has been a barrier in the debate, even as it has been a beacon of hope.

The fight is not over.  Eviction protections for tenants in market rate units not under rent control did not improve which is a disappointment.  As Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, the former New York ACORN, was quoted in the Times, “…this is a huge win for the tenant movement that will impact the lives of millions of renters … but we also feel we have a long way to go.”

Amen, and many of us will be trying to follow your lead!

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Rent Control Fights Popping Up All Over California for Affordable Housing

Activists disappointed after an Assembly committee blocked a bill to
lift statewide restrictions on types rent control demonstrate in
California’s Capitol on Thursday. (Katy Murphy – Bay Area News Group)

Detroit  I may be meeting with organizers in Detroit about how to convert abandoned houses into affordable housing and land contracts into mortgages, but it was heartening to read on the plane about the activity in a number of communities, including the capital city of Sacramento, to bring some order to rental pricing in the form of rent controls.  Reading the piece in The New York Times seemed like old home week as well.  There was Davin Cardenas in Santa Rosa ready to go back to the well and turn an earlier narrow defeat into a hopeful victory this time around.  There were pictures of organizers pushing an initiative campaign in Sacramento from ACCE, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the former California ACORN, who were the field troops in the campaign there.  In fact, there was the Los Angeles AIDS Healthcare Coalition where I had interviewed an organizer with their innovative persuasion canvassing operation, Lab, on Wade’s World for KABF a couple of years ago.  There’s hope for tenants on the West Coast!

Not that it’s easy.

Santa Rosa had won rent protection and rate security from the city council there but faced an onslaught led by the real estate interests who put them through a ballot proposition and an expensive campaign which they narrowly lost in recent years, but that was before horrific fires in the area have brought the issue back to the forefront as rents have soared with families desperate for housing during the rebuilding.  Cardenas reports that people are knocking down the community organization’s doors imploring them to try again and bring it the ballot themselves.  The fight is never over until it’s won!

In Sacramento, organizers are clearly worried about making the 50,000 number for the signature goal to get the rent issue on the ballot there.  That’s not a good sign, though they are clearly in it to win it as well.  Too often a difficult signature campaign leaves too much energy and resources on the streets and not enough gas in the tank to wage a winning campaign.  Win or lose, the organization will build power in Sacramento in the process which would put tenants in a much stronger position for the future there.

This is a national crisis, not a California one, and in too many areas states have tried to preemptively take away the prospects for rent control so that real estate lobbyists can stack the deck in the state legislature to prevent organizations and our allies to outflank them at the city level where the rents are soaring and gentrification is out of this world.  Just as we have seen in the efforts to raise minimum wages in cities, apartment owners’ associations have also followed the ALEC, National Restaurant Association, and small business groups in blocking city home rule capacity in the area of rents in more than half of the states.

That’s not an excuse of course.  There are other policy avenues:  impact areas like in Scotland, more aggressive zoning, community benefit requirements, and tax incentives for capping costs on developments among other options.

This fight is expanding. You can even see evidence in the language.  In Scotland it’s an ACORN affiliated campaign called Living Rent which speaks to the issue of rent that has to be affordable – like wages have to be sufficient – for living.  Even the headline in the Times spoke of “affordable living,” rather than affordable housing.

People are catching up with this crisis, and that’s a good sign for all of us engaged in these campaigns.

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