By Lindsay Emery
A New York State Senate public hearing held last week in Greenburgh debated whether rent regulation and tenant protections should be renewed and extended in time for to meet the June 15 deadline.
A package of nine bills is being pushed by Democratic legislators in hopes of establishing universal rent guidelines across the state.
Senators heard from tenants and advocacy groups in favor of the legislative package and landlords in opposition. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan), who is chairman of the Senate’s Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee were joined by senators Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro).
Several landlords and groups representing their interests argued that the proposed legislation would destroy the Westchester housing market and pressed for incentives for building owners.
“Addressing affordability through the strengthening of these ETPA laws is going to produce bad results for the tenants and the economy as a whole,” said Jerry Houlihan, a real estate broker.
Tina Jackson, a member of the Rochester Citywide Tenant Union, traveled from upstate New York to attend the hearing with two other colleagues. Jackson was joined by Elizabeth McGriff, another tenant union member, who endured the foreclosure of her house. McGriff described how landlords and tenants are supposed to be protected from legislation that can hurt their community.
“Our system is supposed to be set up with a system of checks and balances,” McGriff said.
Instead, McGriff argued that low-income communities are disproportionately affected and should be granted the ability to create a community land trust.
Harckham said one key bill being debated is whether to change the 20 percent vacancy allowance, the limit that landlords can raise rents after a tenant leaves a residence. He said some tenant advocates have alleged that landlords are looking to push residents out to raise rents so that more apartments reach the threshold where they are no longer subject to regulation.
Another controversial issue is whether increases for major capital improvements to buildings should be permanently added to the rents, he said.
“These costs can be passed along to a tenant but that increase stays for the life of the apartment,” Harckham said. “So one side wants to get rid of all this stuff and make it one-sided toward the tenants and you have the building owners saying the system is not broken, don’t fix it, just renew. So I think we’re going to land somewhere in the middle.”
Contractors with signs outside Greenburgh Town Hall, where the May 28 hearing was held, said they opposed the package because they rely on the work generated by the Major Capital Improvements and Individual Apartment Improvements.
Albert Annunziata, executive director of The Building and Realty Institute of Westchester, said landlords are economic generators in their neighborhoods and employ local contractors and suppliers, businesses often led by women or minorities.
“Every landlord who keeps up their buildings, not only for their own investment but for their tenants, and they support a wider economy in the neighborhood,” Annunziata said. “If the more radical bills pass that really punish building owners for improving their buildings, then we’re going to see a collapse of that positive economic activity.”
Mayer said she was optimistic that a deal will be struck by June 15. She explained that landlords in Westchester want to push back against any major modifications.
“We in the Senate are working very hard collectively to reach an agreement on how to strengthen the laws in sync with a progressive agenda that expands access to affordable housing statewide,” Mayer said.
Ossining Village Trustee Omar Herrera said the state legislature needs to update antiquated regulations. Ossining has been one community where rent regulation has been a hot-button issue.
“So when you look at this package, this goes way beyond ETPA-eligible buildings, it finally talks about the county and New York as a whole, which hasn’t been done for renter protections or rights for I can’t even remember, right?” Herrera said “So, I think that this is an opportunity for everyone who has been critiquing rent stabilization, criticizing it, to really step up and work with lawmakers and tenants and advocates and finally draft a policy and get something passed.”
New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas expressed her support for the nine bills, especially since rent in New York continues to escalate at a much greater pace than incomes.
“We know that the security and sense of a belonging that a home provides is invaluable and irreplaceable,” Visnauskas said. “But for those who are rent-burdened, on limited income, have fallen into homelessness for whichever of the reasons that exist, whose neighborhoods have endured disinvestment or displacement, home takes on a very different meaning. Rather than convey a sense of stability, it becomes a sense of stress.”
All nine bills from the package are currently in committee in the Senate and Assembly.