Scant progress for tenants in wake of rent-law win

Cancel-rent bills stall in Albany as pivotal election approaches

A year after the rent law upended the New York City rental market, tenant organizers face an uphill battle to cancel rent and keep the pressure on (iStock)
A year after the rent law upended the New York City rental market, tenant organizers face an uphill battle to cancel rent and keep the pressure on (iStock)

During a May 14 video conference with Housing Justice for All, Sen. Michael Gianaris rattled off examples of his solidarity with the tenant group, including pushing a bill to cancel rent and criticizing the governor for weakening an eviction moratorium.

Meanwhile, he declined to address a group of small landlords, relegating them to a Zoom call with an aide. “What we initially came out with is not necessarily the final draft,” legislative fellow Jennifer Weintraub told them a day after her boss met with tenants. “It was his gut reaction to the crisis.”

Gianaris says he still believes the bill as written is what is needed. But his aide’s unscripted comment now seems prescient: Albany hasn’t shown much appetite for the measure.

The lack of progress for “cancel rent” — and the approval of two rent measures that tenant groups opposed as too weak — stand in contrast to tenants’ historic gains just a year ago.

The rent-law overhaul effective June 15, 2019, locked nearly 1 million apartments into rent stabilization and severely limited rent increases. The old law’s expiration had “created a political crisis that forced the legislature to act and pass laws that we had built a consensus around for years,” explained Cea Weaver, coordinator for the Housing Justice for All coalition.

“But,” she acknowledged, “it’s a little paradoxical that now, in some ways, we have less power in Albany and more power nationally.”

Calls to cancel rent have spread across the country in response to the pandemic. At the same time, major agenda items that were expected to resurface in New York this year — including “good cause” eviction and the pied-à-terre tax — have not gained traction. Rent strikes, which were declared in May to pressure lawmakers to cancel rent, have so far failed in that mission.

It’s impossible to know if such measures would have fared better had Albany not been focused since mid-March on the coronavirus and this month on police reform. What’s clear, though, is that tenant advocates have a seat at the table when it comes to policy reform.

“Is there going to be as concrete a victory as last year? Probably not,” said Hilary Botein, a housing expert and professor at Baruch College. “Is it going to call attention to how the system is not working for many people? Yes.”

The question is, will that last?

Fits and starts

Before the onset of the pandemic, pro-tenant legislation had started to advance in Albany, though few expected it to be a primary focus of this year’s legislative session. Nevertheless, in February, an amended version of good cause, which would forbid evictions triggered by rent increases a bit higher than inflation, headed to the Senate judiciary committee. Property owners were alarmed, because the bill amounted to statewide rent control.

It has not passed, perhaps because there is less urgency after tenants’ big win last June, which has already had a dramatic effect on housing in New York City.

A February report by the Community Service Society of New York found that evictions in areas of the city where renters didn’t have access to free legal representation declined 14 percent from 2018 to 2019. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that evictions plunged 46 percent in the four months following the new law.

Oksana Mironova, housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society, said the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 was the product of years’ of organizing for pro-tenant changes, including revisions to the rent law in 2015 — three years before Republicans were swept out of power in Albany. Last year’s law built the foundation for the cancel rent movement, Mironova said, and amplified its messaging.

“The amount of coverage and attention those things got had a lot to do with the victory last year,” she said. “It’s easier to get people to follow your cause when you win things.”

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Sen. Brian Kavanagh said many legislators had long wanted to reform the rules that allowed landlords to increase rents on regulated apartments, but last year — with Democrats in full control of state government for the first time since a brief reign a decade ago — was their first real chance to do so. New legislators who had campaigned on tenants’ rights forced the issue.

“The tenant voices are significant, and landlords don’t have a veto as they did in previous negotiations with the state,” the Manhattan lawmaker said, alluding to Republicans’ former control of the Senate.

But this year has been a challenge for tenant groups, which have criticized the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

They bristled when Gov. Andrew Cuomo narrowed New York’s ban on evictions as he extended it by two months, to Aug. 20. And instead of canceling rent, the Senate and Assembly passed a measure to supplement rent for certain landlords whose tenants lost income during the pandemic. Cuomo has until Wednesday to veto it or it will become law.

Activists have also been displeased with the de Blasio administration’s response to the pandemic — especially those who wanted the city to provide single hotel rooms for 30,000 homeless New Yorkers. The administration instead moved 12,000 shelter residents into hotels, in some cases two per room.

In addition, the absence of a statewide approach — unlike in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsome ordered homeless people moved into hotels — frustrated homeless advocates. A June report by the Coalition for the Homeless found the mortality rate in New York City homeless shelters was 61 percent higher than in the city as a whole.

“We’re incredibly proud and happy about the expansion of the rent laws, but it didn’t do anything for homeless people,” said Paulette Soltani, political director for VOCAL-NY. “A year later we have record homelessness, and not a single policy on the books to help people get back home.”

Primary test

To keep the momentum up after their rent law win, tenant organizers trained their sights on a new electoral target: the state Assembly.

Last year they viewed the lower chamber as a stumbling block, discounting its previous approval of pro-tenant bills that never had a chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate.

To pass the rent law after Democrats captured the Senate, progressive legislators relentlessly whipped votes in the Assembly. But they knew keeping the pressure up required insurgent campaigns against Assembly members less sympathetic to tenants. All state legislators are up for re-election this year.

After the rent law passed, a slate of tenant-backed candidates announced Assembly bids. Several scored endorsements from progressive heavyweights Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders. But with the public’s focus now on racial justice — and the pandemic likely to affect voter turnout for the June 23 primary — the insurgents’ path to victory has grown cloudier.

All except one of the tenant-backed candidates in New York City is a person of color, which could boost their chances with support building for Black Lives Matter. Weaver said that having black socialists in Albany is crucial for the tenant movement, but that it is difficult to predict primary results.

Can lightning strike twice?

Gianaris does not agree that the absence of a big victory this year indicates New York tenants have lost strength. “The movement for housing justice should not be looked at like a sporting event where we assess wins after each inning,” the Queens senator said.

Tenants’ success last year stemmed from an astute strategy, a statewide mobilization of tenants and a dramatic shift in state politics. But another key — one they will not be able to replicate so readily — was the element of surprise: After losing Albany battles for nearly 30 years, tenant organizers caught even Cuomo off guard. That is unlikely to happen again, political insiders say.

“It’s going to be more like trench warfare going forward,” said one tenant organizer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Gains are going to be harder to come by and less far-reaching, but we’re still on the offensive.”