Law and Politics, New York

1199 Joins Campaign for Stronger Rent Laws

February 16, 2015
By Steven Wishnia

Local 1199SEIU has become the first major New York labor union to join the campaign to renew and strengthen the state’s rent-regulation laws, which expire June 15. “More than 70,000 1199SEIU members live in rent-regulated apartments,” Helen Schaub, the health-care workers’ union’s policy director, said in a statement for LaborPress.

“For them, the need to renew and strengthen our rent laws is not an abstract, legislative issue. It is a defining issue which determines whether or not they can continue to live in the city where they work to provide care for all New Yorkers.”

The union says hundreds of members are going to Albany this Saturday, Feb. 14, to lobby for a legislative agenda that includes the “full repeal” of the 1997 vacancy-deregulation law. They will participate in events, workshops, and actions during the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators Conference. Future actions planned include a large rally at City Hall next month, when the City Council holds hearings on renewing New York City’s rent-control and rent-stabilization laws; town hall meetings in each borough in April; and possibly a rally in Albany in May.

Housing activists expect several other city unions to join the campaign too, with United Auto Workers Region 9A definite. Local 1199 made “a concerted effort to get in early,” says spokesperson Chelsea-Lyn Rudder.

The state’s rent-stabilization law protects tenants in almost 1 million apartments in the city and about 50,000 more in the suburbs. It limits rent increases for them to the levels permitted by local rent-guidelines boards each year, and also guarantees tenants the right to renew their lease automatically. They cannot be evicted without a specific reason such as not paying rent or creating a nuisance.

The laws are expected to be renewed, but the main area of contention will be over strengthening them. In 1997, the state allowed landlords to charge an automatic 20% increase on vacant apartments, and also let them deregulate vacant apartments if the rent could be raised to $2,000 a month or more. Tenant groups want that provision repealed, on the grounds that it has enabled rents to go up far beyond what people can afford all over the city; deregulated more than 300,000 apartments in the metropolitan area, many illegally; and given landlords an incentive to harass rent-stabilized tenants to drive them out.   

Local 1199 has endorsed a nine-bill legislative agenda proposed by the two main tenant-group coalitions, the Real Rent Reform Campaign and theAlliance for Tenant Power. The lead bill would repeal vacancy decontrol and put most of the apartments deregulated since 1997 back into rent stabilization. Others in the package would repeal the 20% vacancy surcharge, restructure rent guidelines boards, and make rent increases for major capital improvements temporary, so they end when the cost of the improvements is paid off, instead of being permanently added to the rent and compounded by annual increases.

Another measure would put all apartments in Mitchell-Lama developments— buildings constructed under a state affordable-housing program from the 1950s to the 1970s—into rent stabilization if their owners take them out of the program, as many have done recently. This is important, explains Rudder, because about 30,000 Local 1199 members live in Mitchell-Lama buildings.

The Assembly, dominated by Democrats from the city, passed most of these bills, including repealing vacancy deregulation, in the 2013-14 session, and new Speaker Carl Heastie has said strengthening the rent laws is a top priority. But the state Senate, controlled by upstate and suburban Republicans almost nonstop since the 1960s, has been an obstacle to stronger rent regulations for decades. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not supported repealing vacancy deregulation, although in 2011, the last time the laws came up for renewal, he approved raising the threshold for it to $2,500 a month. (Both tenant coalitions have conceded that repealing the 1971 law that prohibits the city from enacting stronger rent regulations than the state’s is politically impossible this year.)

Making rent regulations a priority represents something of a change for Local 1199, which in the past, endorsed the two elected officials most responsible for the 1997 weakening of them: former Gov. George Pataki, who in 2002 backed pay raises for 1199 members, and former Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, who allied with the union against Medicaid cuts.

But in last year’s election, 1199 stopped giving money to Senate Republicans. While it endorsed some GOP incumbents in relatively noncompetitive races, including Majority Leader Dean Skelos, it joined with other unions and the Working Families Party in an unsuccessful bid to capture the Senate for the Democrats.

February 13, 2015

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