A raucous crowd marched in Harlem last night, demanding Albany legislators follow through on promises to not just renew but strengthen the state’s tenant protections.
“This gathering is a continuation of the mass of people who populate this city,” Reverend Calvin Butts told a packed house at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, after saying that housing was a moral issue in addition to an economic one. “Most of us are poor people, we don’t have a lot of money. We must have affordable housing.”
There was a palpable desire in the church to see tenant-friendly legislation passed in this post-budget session in Albany, as religious leaders, elected officials and tenant activists one after the other called on legislators and the governor to pass a package of nine bills that, taken as a whole, constitute a platform that’s been called universal rent control. And to drive the point home, three of the city’s four top elected leaders were there to encourage the crowd and vow to work with them to get the bills passed in Albany.
“Right now we are standing on the precipice of a big moment for our city and our state,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told the crowd. “There is a monumental decision on a fundamental question that is before us: Are we going to be a city where only the richest can live? Where you have to make a six or seven figure salary to live here? Or are we going to be a city where working people can survive?”
Comptroller Scott Stringer said the universal rent control fight was in part about protecting tenants who had moved into and stayed in their neighborhoods when the city was on a downswing. The rumored 2021 mayoral candidate also won points with the crowd for pivoting to a demand for a change in city policy. “This is a movement that is not going back in the bottle,” Stringer said. “Because once we take care of Albany, we have to come back to New York City and we’ve got to say ‘Enough with these rezonings.’ They tell you they’re building affordable housing. But I’m telling you, it’s unaffordable for the people in our neighborhoods, so why the hell are they doing it?”
The loudest pop for a politician, though, came for the newly-elected public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who told the crowd that “we are on a warpath for housing” before turning his remarks directly at the Real Estate Board of New York and his almost-running mate Governor Andrew Cuomo (who endorsed pieces of the universal rent control agenda earlier this year). “This is to REBNY: We got our foot on your neck, boy. REBNY, I don’t give a damn about your second home in Midtown,” Williams said in reference to the trade group’s successful stymieing of the pied-a-terre tax. “What I do care about is people who are homeless on these streets.”
“Is there anyone here who believes and trusts Governor Cuomo when he says he’ll do what’s right?” Williams asked the crowd, which answered with jeers. “So we’ve got to hold him to his word. I am telling you that we can do this,” Williams told the crowd, before ending a fiery speech with “Governor Cuomo, we coming; REBNY, we coming.”
Attendees at the rally and march are asking for more than a simple renewal of the state’s rent laws this year, which are expiring this year at the end of June. Universal rent control is made up of a series of nine bills, some old and some new. The bills that have been introduced and died in a previously non-Democratic State Senate are: an end to vacancy decontrol (the ability for landlords to destabilize a vacant apartment once it reaches $2,733 per month) and the vacancy bonus for landlords (a 20 percent rent increase allowed to landlords when a tenant moves out of a stabilized apartment), the elimination of rent increases tied to building-wide and single-apartment upgrades (known as major capital improvements and individual apartment increases), a cap for rent-control increases to bring them in line with rent-stabilization rent increases, and requiring that any rent increase from a preferential rent be based off that rent and not the legal rent of an apartment.
Those have been joined by a new series of bills: the expansion of rent stabilization rights which are currently only available to renters in Nassau, Rockland, Westchester and New York City counties to the entirety of New York State, a “good cause” eviction bill that would tie non-stabilized rent increases in small buildings not covered by stabilization to a “local price index,” and a law allowing New York State to investigate rent overcharge complaints by looking at more than the currently allowed four years of rent history. A number of speakers hammered home the desire to see all nine bills pass, including a segment of the rally where state senators Robert Jackson and Zellnor Myrie and Assembly member Al Taylor all publicly endorsed each bill.
While the last deal in Albany to keep rent stabilization alive in 2015 only extended the program for four years and raised the threshold for vacancy decontrol from $2,500 to $2,700 per month, this year activists see an opportunity to actually get tenant-friendly laws on the books due to the Democratic supermajorities in the Assembly and State Senate. In addition to the wave of State Senate victories that sent universal rent control supporters like Myrie, Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar to the State Senate, the movement has a friend in the Assembly in Speaker Carl Heastie, who sent out a press release this week endorsing every bill in the package except the just cause evictions bill.
“We have seen far too many families forced out of the neighborhoods they shaped because of the cost of rising rents and property speculators chasing profits over people,” Heasite wrote in the release.
Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, told Bedford + Bowery she was cautiously optimistic about the platform’s odds of survival in Albany. “I don’t think the tenant movement should be taking anything for granted. It’s great that Carl Heastie came out in support of eight of our nine bills, but we saw what happened in the state budget, and we’re not done fighting for tenants’ rights this year.”
Weaver said that activists disputed the argument from groups like REBNY and the Rent Stabilization Association (a group of landlords who own rent stabilized properties) that these bills would lead to a lack of investment in apartments or a return to the city’s bad old days. “More and more of our city and state are being bought up by corporate landlords,” Weaver said. “I don’t think anyone can look around New York right now and say with a straight face that there’s a real estate investment problem. There is private money flowing into neighborhoods at an untenable rate and what we’re trying to do is correct for the speculative influence that capital has on New York City.”
Following the rally, a couple hundred of the attendees spilled out onto 138th Street and marched down Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard for another rally in front of the state office building also named after the Congressman. Zellnor Myrie, who stuck around for the march, told Bedford + Bowery that this year’s push for expanded rent laws had an advantage in being a statewide movement. “We had tenants come to Albany from all over the state, it’s a coalition we haven’t seen before,” Myrie said.
“I’ve got grandkids, I want to make sure they have affordable housing and no problems,” Gloria Brooks, who lives in a rent-stabilized building in Hell’s Kitchen told Bedford + Bowery while marchers headed towards their destination at 125th Street.
Marchers originally took to the street, but with fewer numbers than last summer’s housing march in Midtown Manhattan, they were herded back onto the sidewalk by responding police. Even confined to the sidewalk, though, chants for housing as a human right and universal rent control were still shouted.
“We don’t own buildings, the landlord owns the buildings,” Ervin Bennett, a resident of the Bronx since 1981, told Bedford + Bowery. “And when they make an improvement they make us pay for it. So no more MCIs. They did an MCI on my building, I have to pay $75 more per month now. In the ’70s and the ’80s when they burned out the Bronx, we stayed there and built the Bronx up. Now they want to force us out. I lived in the Bronx when the fires burned and we stayed there to fight, and now they try to force us out. That’s not right.”