Bill would expose Council members’ rent-stabilized status

High-earning electeds’ below-market units could be lawsuit fodder for landlords

City Council Member Robert Holden (Getty)
City Council Member Robert Holden (Getty)

A new City Council bill would offer a window into the living arrangements of the chamber’s members, revealing which of them benefit from regulated rents.

The legislation, proposed by Council member Robert Holden and referred to the Committee on Standards and Ethics last Tuesday, would require all members to disclose whether their primary residence is a rent-stabilized apartment.

The disclosures would be filed with the Conflicts of Interest Board and be available to the public on request. The law would let Council members request to withhold information from the public if they can show it would constitute an invasion of privacy or a threat to their safety.

Holden likely introduced the bill to make a point, not with any expectation that it would pass. He is among the most conservative members of the progressive-dominated chamber.

Its introduction serves to amplify the argument by opponents of rent stabilization that the policy benefits more than just low-income New Yorkers. That criticism is central to a lawsuit by landlords challenging the 2019 rent law.

City data shows that renters of rent-stabilized apartments typically earn less than tenants paying market rate. In 2017, the median income of rent-stabilized households was $44,650 compared with $67,000 for those in private, non-regulated units.

“Higher proportions of rent-stabilized households are now low-income and receive public assistance than private, non-regulated households,” an analysis of the 2017 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey reads.

City Council members don’t fall into that lower-earning tier: Their base salary is $148,500. But income has no bearing on eligibility for traditional rent-stabilized housing. (Affordable units in buildings receiving the 421-a tax break have income thresholds for applicants and are rent-regulated for the duration of the tax break.)

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A lawsuit filed by the Rent Stabilization Association and Community Housing Improvement Program challenging rent stabilization contends that the state law is unconstitutional, in part, because it provides hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated units to tenants who can afford to pay market rate.

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A 2019 analysis of city data by the Wall Street Journal supports that contention. It found that more affluent, white residents of Manhattan were the biggest beneficiaries of rent regulation, as they got a steeper discount from market-rate rents. The top quarter of rent-stabilized New York households got a 39 percent break while the bottom quarter paid 15 percent less than market-rate.

In the city’s non-wealthy neighborhoods, stabilized rents can be the same or only slightly lower than market rate. In some cases they are higher, which leads landlords to provide preferential rents. In Manhattan, the median rent exceeds $4,000 and the average is above $5,000, including stabilized units.

The state in 2019 did away with luxury decontrol. The landlords’ lawsuit, which they hope will reach the Supreme Court, argues that rent stabilization does not fulfill its mission of providing affordable housing to low-income tenants and in doing so violates the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

The clause states that a law’s impact must satisfy the government’s intention, according to Andy Pincus, the attorney representing RSA and CHIP.

Elected officials, including former Rep. Charles Rangel, have occasionally gotten in trouble for maintaining rent-stabilized apartments that were not their primary residence, which is not permitted under state law. Holden’s bill does not address that issue, however.

Some observers have also contended that if an elected official with a rent-stabilized lease has a landlord who is doing business with the city, there is potential for abuse.

“Disclosure would help,” concluded a Bklyner piece in 2018 headlined “Should Council Members Live in Rent Stabilized Apartments?”