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12 Unions Urge Stronger Statewide Rent Regulations

May 16, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Organized labor is supporting protections for tenants.

ALBANY, N.Y.—A dozen New York State labor leaders are urging the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to enact laws that would both strengthen the state’s rent-stabilization laws and extend tenant protections to almost all its renter households.

“In their homes, just like in their workplaces, our members—tenants—need protection from unfair and unreasonable rent increases, from unsafe conditions, and from retaliation,” said a letter sent May 13 by state AFL-CIO head Mario Cilento and 11 others to the governor, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “We support a platform that will strengthen the rent-regulation laws in New York City and its surrounding suburbs while also expanding tenant protections for nearly 5 million unregulated tenants across the state.”

The 11 other union heads who signed it were 1199SEIU President George Gresham, Henry Garrido of DC37 AFSCME, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez of the New York State Nurses Association, Jeff Binz of United Auto Workers Region 9A, Dennis Trainor of Communications Workers of America District 1, Peter Ward of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, Michael Mulgrew of the United Federation of Teachers, Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Barbara Bowen of the Professional Staff Congress, International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 1 Treasurer Robert “Toby” McDonough, and Adam Krauthamer of American Federation of Musicians Local 802.

“I am thrilled that some of the most powerful unions in New York State are on our side,” Cea Weaver, head organizer for the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance, told LaborPress. The alliance includes more than 75 organizations from around the state, among them DC 37, 1199SEIU, and UAW Local 2320, the Legal Services Staff Association.

The union leaders endorsed all nine bills in the alliance’s “Housing Justice for All” platform. Four of the measures would address the loopholes in the rent-stabilization laws enacted in 1997 and 2003: They would repeal the deregulation of vacant apartments renting for more than about $2,775 a month and the 20% surcharge allowed on vacant apartments; make “preferential rent” discounts last as long as the tenant stays in the apartment instead of expiring with the lease; and lengthen the statute of limitations for contesting illegal rent increases. A fifth would bring rent increases for the about 22,000 apartments still under rent control with the lower increases allowed under rent stabilization.

Two other bills would eliminate rent increases for building-wide “major capital improvements” and for renovating individual apartments.

The last two would significantly expand rent regulations beyond the about 1 million apartments currently covered. One would allow local governments outside New York City and Westchester, Rockland, and Nassau counties to opt into the state’s rent-stabilization laws. The other would prohibit eviction except for “good cause,” effectively giving almost all tenants in the state the basic right to renew their lease with a limited rent increase. It would exempt owner-occupied buildings of three units or less, but cover most rental units upstate and on Long Island, as well as those in numerous New York City buildings too small or too new to be covered by rent stabilization.

The 12 unions’ support of all nine bills goes significantly further than Gov. Cuomo, who has backed only the five measures that would close loopholes in rent stabilization, or Speaker Heastie, who has endorsed all except good-cause eviction. Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins has not yet released a proposal.

Expanding rent regulations like this is not “radical,” but “necessary,” says UAW Local 2325 President Jared Trujillo, because the loss of rent-regulated apartments caused by the 1997 loopholes and weak state enforcement against illegal rent increases has “made the housing crisis into a housing epidemic.” The union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, represents legal support staff and other public-service lawyers who often work with tenants facing eviction. 

“It’s great that labor is behind this,” Trujillo says. “It will make a huge difference for both our members and our clients.” 

“It’s just reached a very critical point in the state,” says UAW Local 2320 political representative Landry Haarmann. The UAW has lobbied for all nine bills, but focused on good-cause eviction because “that’s the bill that’s going to affect two million people statewide.”

Reining in skyrocketing housing costs is “a form of economic justice,” she adds. “The tenant and union movements both flourished at a time when they worked together.”

“These are simple fixes,” the 12 union leaders wrote. New Jersey has a statewide just-cause eviction law, they noted, and Oregon enacted a statewide rent-control law in February.

“There is no reason that New York, for so long the head of the progressive movement, can’t follow suit,” they concluded. “In the past, labor and our progressive leaders have collaborated for groundbreaking legislation to protect workers; this year, we look forward to doing the same to protect tenants.”

May 16, 2019

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