New York’s rent regulation system is defined by two competing forces: we are a city of renters, with a proportion of tenants to home owners (two-to-one) almost the exact inverse of the national balance; we are also one the most lucrative real estate markets in the country, if not the world.
As a result, we have some of the strongest protections in the country, but our rent laws and regulations are persistently undermined by loopholes and lax enforcement.
These gaps in the rent laws are created and maintained through policy interventions. Every few years, New York’s rent laws sunset. When the legislature votes on their renewal, they attach amendments, which can either weaken or strengthen their regulatory powers. Paralleling this legislative process is a series of administrative actions, which change the way the state housing agency — New York State Homes and Community Renewal — interprets and enforces the state’s rent regulations.
For many years, New York’s rent protections were on the decline. A string of weakening amendments was added to the rent laws, making it easier for landlords to raise rents and bring apartments out of the rent regulation system. In 2000, the Pataki administration initiated a major revision of the Rent Stabilization Code, the document that guides interpretation of the rent laws, and sets policies for enforcement. In a set of changes over 150 pages long, HCR pushed through changes that were described by tenant advocates at the time as “an attempt to deregulate apartments on a wholesale basis.” Those revisions drastically reduced the agency’s ability to protect tenants and preserve affordability.
Recently, the tide has begun to turn back towards tenants. In 2011, for the first time in nearly two decades, the rent laws were renewed in Albany with strengthening rather than weakening amendments. One of the most important victories that year was a promise, written into law, that HCR would issue new regulations on rent law enforcement.
Following that announcement, tenants took action to make sure that promise was kept. They met with agency staff, testified at public hearings, and protested in front of Governor Cuomo’s office, calling for swift and definitive action.
Finally, on April 24, HCR issued their proposed regulations: a set of new guidelines touching on some of the most important issues facing tenants, from resetting fraudulent rents to stopping landlord harassment. The proposed regulations are far from comprehensive, but they are a definitive turn away from the agency’s prior orientation and an important shift towards tenant protection. They will create more tools to fight fraud and prevent rent theft.
Take the case of a renter who is currently organizing a tenants association in Washington Heights. Glenda (not her real name) moved into her apartment in 2011. She was told to sign a rider saying the apartment had left rent stabilization because the rent rose above $2,500.
After doing some research, she found that her apartment never should have been deregulated, and that the last legal rent for the apartment was just under $1,500.
Why had the apartment been deregulated? Had any significant work been done in the apartment between tenancies that could have justified that rent hike?
Glenda is currently fighting an overcharge case through HCR, which will likely take months if not years to settle.
Under the new proposed regulations, however, the landlord would have been forced to provide documents explaining how and why the apartment became deregulated, and proved that rent increases were justified by real, documentable costs. This change would help maintain the affordability of rent stabilized apartments and prevent illegal deregulations.
There is, of course, much more the agency can do with these regulations. HCR could strengthen the succession rights of tenants, who are routinely denied the right to take over an apartment from their loved one because of minor technicalities of no fault to the tenant. They could also take the opportunity to roll back the rents of apartments that were illegally deregulated while landlords received tax breaks. HCR’s proposed regulations are an important step forward, but they alone are not enough to fully correct the giant leap backward the agency took in previous years.
On Monday June 10, HCR will hold hearings on their proposed regulations in Manhattan, Westchester and Nassau counties. The agency needs to hear from members of the public that in the current climate of rising rents and stagnant incomes, tenants need new rules for stronger enforcement.
Samuel Stein is the Rent Regulation Campaign Coordinator at Tenants & Neighbors, a grassroots organization that helps tenants build and effectively wield their power to preserve at-risk affordable housing and strengthen tenants’ rights.
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