On June 15th rent laws protecting 2.5 million tenants are set to expire. And if the New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo fail to renew and strengthen the rent laws, we could see a homelessness and housing crisis unlike any since the Great Depression.
One need only look at the experience of Boston, Massachusetts, and surrounding communities, which eliminated rent regulation in a controversial 1994 statewide referendum. As a 2003 New York Times report found, rents skyrocketed in Boston, Brookline and Cambridge following the repeal of rent controls. The Times quoted Boston Mayor Thomas Menino as follows:
”It’s worse than ever before….Working people have been forced out. More people are doubled up. We’ve got the highest level of homelessness the city has ever had, due to the rental increase. That’s not a healthy city.”
This is one of the reasons Coalition for the Homeless has joined the Real Rent Reform campaign in an effort to protect and strengthen New York’s rent laws.
Last week the New York State Assembly’s Housing Committee held a hearing on rent regulation, and dozens of tenant groups, housing advocates, and policy experts spoke about the need not only to renew the rent laws this year, but to strengthen and enhance them. Coalition for the Homeless testified at the hearing about how the weakening of rent regulation has already contributed to record homelessness in New York – a copy of our testimony can be downloaded here (PDF).
As we write in an upcoming edition of our Safety Net newsletter:
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 5 percent citywide, and under 2 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 for 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 middle-class 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 essential to stemming even further increases in homelessness. That is why Coalition for the Homeless is working alongside 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,” which means that rent and tenant protections are eliminated for apartments whose monthly rents exceed $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 loss 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. And the outright elimination of the rent laws would lead to a wave of evictions and homelessness unseen in New York since the Great Depression.
Please join us in urging Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to renew and strengthen our rent laws.