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Will the State Senate Save Rent Control?

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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tenants rights march
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Michael McKee, the treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, worked hard to secure a Democratic majority in the State Senate. Besides making substantial donations to the campaigns of Democratic Senate hopefuls last year, McKee said, more than 50 people from Tenants PAC worked to elect Joe Addabbo in his bid to unseat Sen. Serphin Maltese.

Why?

"We knew that as long as the Republicans were in charge we couldn't get the simplest, Mickey Mouse bill out of the Senate," McKee said. According to McKee, Senate Republicans received a steady flow of cash flow from the real estate industry that "kept them in power"and so had no interest in passing legislation that would be favorable to tenants.

Addabbo's campaign was successful, and the Democrats seemed set to become the Senate Majority. McKee expected the Senate would then easily pass housing legislation the Democratic-controlled Assembly had moved on year after year. Now, though, dissension within Democratic ranks has cast doubts over whether 2009 will be the banner year for tenants McKee and other advocates had hoped.

What Tenants Want

In general, housing advocates want to strengthen rent control and reverse many of the measures to weaken it that were enacted by the New York City Council and the Republican-controlled state government over the last two decades. The expected legislation includes A02005, which would would undo the law that allowed landlords to remove rent regulation on vacant apartments on which the rent had reached $2,000 a month rent. Advocates say the passage of A02005 would be a triumph for tenants since it would also restore to rent regulation some apartments that had been decontrolled.

Proponents of the bill in the Assembly say that rent decontrol encourages landlords to harass and mistreat tenants in rent controlled apartments to drive them out and then rent the apartments at market rates. Rising rents also make it difficult for tenants with regulated apartments to even consider moving. Meanwhile landlords have an incentive to lie about the pricetag of renovations on vacant apartments to artificially raise the value of the unit.

Maggie Russell-Ciadri, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, said that ending decontrol is the single most important issue for tenant advocates. Experts say more than 50,000 rent-regulated apartments were lost between 2005 and 2008 because of decontrol.

Returning rent regulation to the city by repealing the Urstadt law has been a priority for many tenants' advocates for years. The Urstadt law, enacted in 1971 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, took rent regulation out of the hands of New York City and gave it to the state. Therefore legislators from districts without much rental housing can influence the price of apartments in New York City. This year, though, advocates are less focused on repealing the Urstadt laws than they were in previous years and have made abolishing decontrol their focus.

Other bills before before the Assembly would address other tenant concerns. One, A1928, would make rent increases for major capital projects a temporary surcharge so that tenants could pay off the costs of improvements rather than having permanent increases in rent. Bill A2002 would increase penalties for landlords who harass their tenants.

Bill A168 would limit a landlord's ability to claim apartments for the use of their family. Now landlords are able to push tenants out of their apartments and some have been able to empty entire buildings to create luxury mansions. The bill would limit recovery for family use to one apartment. Other bills in the Assembly package are designed to close loopholes to keep landlords from drastically raising the rates of their rent controlled apartments.

Democratic Dissidents

Progress on these issues now seems unlikely to proceed as smoothly as tenants groups had hoped. Thanks to hard bargaining by three renegade Democrats who threatened to bolt the party -- the so-called gang of three -- the landscape in the Senate has changed from what many anticipated on Election Day. Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, a passionate supporter of tenants' issues and the ranking Democratic member of the Housing Committee, was assumed to be in line for chair. She was bumped in favor of gang of three member Pedro Espada of the Bronx.

Housing advocates have voiced their displeasure at Espada's nomination, with some calling the gang of three "the Manchurian Democrats."

McKee said that Espada is simply the wrong person to chair the Housing Committee. According to McKee, when Espada served in 1993 as the ranking Democrat on the committee, he was "not only unresponsive" but also "destructive."

However, McKee said, "it's unclear how Espada will perform as chair" and how much it will matter. McKee said that he is sure the Democratic Senate, especially Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, realizes tenants' issues are "life and death" to them. In light of that, McKee expects the Democratic leadership will make sure the Senate does away with rent decontrol regardless of Espada.

Responding to complaints from tenant advocates, Espada said, "Maybe they don't know me." He added that the Section 8 subsidized housing program and tenant-protection issues are "very close to me."

Espada said he grew up on public assistance, has experience being homeless and worked as a tenant organizer. All this, he said, makes him sympathetic to the plight of the working family. "I'd like to meet an advocate who has experience that I don't have," said Espada. "I would ask for their patience and cooperation."

Espada seemed ready to take on broader issues as well. "It's a really exciting time in America," he said, explaining that he expected a "new urban reality," thanks to the Obama administration. "It's time to think beyond brick and mortar housing. We should be thinking out of the box. We should revisit the complete policy of how we assist cities."

One way to expand the supply of housing, he said, would involve making it possible for people to live upstate and quickly and affordably commute downstate. "We need to talk about how we get workers in Manhattan to Sullivan and Ulster counties to live there. There are ghost towns there now. "

As for his loyalty to the agenda of the majority leader and the Democratic majority, Espada said, "As a whole there is a clear synergy, but the idea that we should all be on automatic pilot is ridiculous. We are going to have to take each issue as it comes--not just draw up battle lines, but look at the merits of each issue."

Meanwhile in the Assembly

As housing advocates wonder exactly what they can expect from the Senate, their old allies in the Assembly appear more than ready to push ahead as they have in the past.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver released a statement earlier this month pledging his support to "protect working families who are struggling with the cost of housing." Assembly Housing Committee chair Vito Lopez has already held hearings on rent regulation.

It is expected that next week the Assembly will move to pass the package of pro-tenant legislation

McKee has grown accustomed to seeing the Assembly take action on tenants issues while knowing the legislation will die because of inaction by the Senate. This year he has considerably more hope, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty.



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The Damage Is Already Done

By Richard Wandel

One of the first things former Mayor Giuliani did after taking office was to try to cut the budget of the Municipal Archives and downgrade it from a separate division of city government to a subdivision of the buildings and maintenance department. So it should have been no surprise when, at the end of his term, he moved his administration's records to a private warehouse in Queens rather than turning them over to the Municipal Archives. A group of historians and archivists immediately formed to protest his actions.

Despite his claims that his private organization could do the archiving more efficiently, Giuliani spelled out his intentions in the initial contract -- he wanted control over which documents would become private and which would become public. Every mayor since Fiorello La Guardia has turned his records over to the Municipal Archives. Since the 1930's, it has been a public archivist who has made the distinction between what is public and what is private, not the mayor. These records are public documents and should have remained in public control.

The agreement between the outgoing administration and the Giuliani Center for Public Affairs, the private non-profit group that has been given the mayoral records, ill serves the citizens of New York City. It brings into question the integrity of the record, and makes access to the records more difficult for the public. Their integrity is suspect because the public possession of the records has been interrupted in favor of control being in the hands of the former mayor himself, with the implied ability to censor, destroy or otherwise change the record. Access has become more difficult because the agreement calls for access decisions to be made by petition to the corporate council, rather than the much simpler and more neutral mechanism of going to the Municipal Archives and seeing the documents with the assistance of professional archivists.

For historians and archivists, the continual custody of public records -- knowing where records have been and who has had access to them is essential to the integrity of the documents. Historians will look at the records of this administration and wonder "what may have happened" during the time that they were under Mr. Giuliani's control. Merely having the opportunity to tamper with the records creates suspicion. Whether one likes Rudolph Giuliani or not, and whether or not the former mayor actually tampers with his administrations records, this diversion of public property sets a dangerous precedent for future administrations. The controversy is not just about Giuliani. It is about what these public records mean to the city and to our sense of history.

Archiving is a process of assessing what records should be saved, preserving them in a way that will last for future generations, and making them available to the those who need them. The proper collection and maintenance of public records is a powerful tool for monitoring government. Archives are a fundamental element of accountability and the democratic process. If public officials can alter or censor the record of what they have done, and who they spoke to, and why decisions were made, then democracy is also jeopardized. Throughout history, leaders have sought to control government records. When Napoleon conquered Europe, he seized the records of the defeated governments and moved them to Paris. In World War II, Germany tried to control the records of the places they over ran. The Taliban destroyed records in an effort to erase the culture and history of all that came before them - all record of what did not agree with their version of history and culture.

History creates a community's identity. Whether that is the identity of the people of the United States, of New Yorkers, of women, of blacks, or of gays and lesbians, it is the historic record which gives us a sense of who we are and where we have come from. Until a group has an identity that it feels secure in and proud of it cannot go forward and it remains vulnerable to however others wish to define them.

The former mayor's actions come at a time when the city has suffered a great loss to some of its archival collections.

In the attack of September 11, a number of businesses, non-profit groups, and government agencies lost irreplaceable records and historic documents. It also comes at a time when hundreds of different institutions across the city are collecting documents, emails, office blueprints, photographs, and personal accounts from the World Trade Center attacks. The public is aware of the importance of this information and how it helps us to understand all that happened that day.

The Giuliani administration's records are an essential part of this collection of September 11th documents. Unfortunately, these same documents will always be viewed with some suspicion because of the legal and political battles that surround them.

Perhaps even more importantly, this provides an opening for future administrations to censor or otherwise control the record of their administration. For that reason, regardless of the outcome of this particular case it is imperative that the City Council makes sure that the public right to ownership and access to administration records can never again be compromised as they have in the current case.

Richard Wandel is a Board member of the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, a not-for-profit organization representing a diverse group of more than 330 professional archivists, librarians, and records managers in the New York metropolitan area. He is the Associate Archivist of the New York Philharmonic and is the volunteer archivist/historian of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.

Read "Creating the Best Archives for the City" by Saul Cohen
Read "Municipal Neglect" by James Epstein

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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