By Patrick Markee
Can you imagine how, on a single day, a decision by New York officials could cause housing costs to skyrocket for more than 2.5 million New Yorkers and threaten many of them with eviction and homelessness? Well, that day is June 15th, and it involves the single most important affordable housing issue in New York this year.
On June 15th, rent and tenant protections for half of all New York City renter households, as well as thousands more in Long Island and Westchester County, will expire. These essential rent laws have served for generations as the foundation for affordable rental housing for middle-class and low-income New Yorkers. And if Governor Cuomo and the New York State legislature don't act, we could see our homelessness and housing crisis spiral even further out of control.
New York City is overwhelmingly a renter city, with two of every three households living in rental apartments. But due to extremely low apartment vacancy rates - below five percent citywide, and under two percent for low-rent units - New York instituted a system of rent regulation more than 60 years ago. The rent laws now protect tenants from eviction except in cases of just cause, and limit annual rent increases to modest levels.
Contrary to myths propagated by the real estate industry and opponents of rent regulation, the vast majority of rent-regulated tenants are middleclass and low-income. Half of all rent regulated households have annual incomes below $38,000, and more than one in five have incomes below the poverty line. Indeed, more than twice as many poor New Yorkers live in rent-regulated housing (225,000 households) than live in public housing (93,000 households).
Simply put, the rent laws are essential to maintaining New York City's stock of affordable rental housing. And they are equally essential to stemming even further increases in homelessness. That is why Coalition for the Homeless is working in tandem with tenant organizations, organized labor, housing advocates, and others on a campaign not only to renew the rent laws but to strengthen them.
The last two times the rent laws came up for renewal (in 1997 and 2004), the real estate industry and its allies in the Legislature and the Governor's office managed to weaken the laws substantially. Most damaging, the rent laws were amended to include a provision called "vacancy decontrol." This means that rent and tenant protections are eliminated when an apartment's monthly rent exceeds $2,000. Vacancy decontrol has caused the loss of an estimated 300,000 rent-regulated apartments over the past decade, and even more could be lost in the coming years. That's the reason that the Coalition and the Real Rent Reform campaign are pushing for the elimination of vacancy decontrol, as well as other enhancements to the rent laws.
Weaker rent laws are one of the major factors behind the steady erosion of affordable rental housing in New York City. And the shrinking affordable housing stock is the primary cause of record homelessness in New York. Further weakening of the laws - including a renewal of the current laws in their weakened state - will only lead to more homelessness. Worse, the outright elimination of the rent laws would lead to an unprecedented wave of evictions and homelessness and make it virtually impossible for middle and low-income families to live here.
What You Can Do
Published in Safety Net, Winter 2011