Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Housing
Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
Housing refers to all dwellings in NYC - from luxury condos with views of the Park to battered in-rem apartments in the South Bronx - and the laws and policy disputes that they produce.
The Context
The percentage of vacant and available housing stock in NYC has never exceeded 4.01%. This extraordinary housing scarcity makes for the highest rents in the US. Unlike citizens of most big American cities, where slightly over half of units are owner-occupied, more than two-thirds of New Yorkers are renters. And - bucking the national trend again - more than two-thirds of New York apartments are rent-regulated in some way. The housing crunch shows no sign of easing up, as new construction is impeded by the highest building costs in the nation. Of the little new construction that does occur in NYC, the vast majority takes advantage of some government subsidy or exemption. Also to note: the city within a city that is New York's 170,000 units of public housing - by far the largest amount of public housing anywhere in America.
The Reporter
Rebecca Webber is a journalist who has covered housing issues for Gotham Gazette since July 2000.

by Rebecca Webber

The Urstadt Law: How Albany Controls NYC Rents

In 1971 the New York State Legislature passed the so-called Urstadt Law which took away New York City's power to pass local rent laws that are any more stringent than the state's.

Few complained at the time. More upsetting among that year's package of housing bills was "vacancy decontrol," which completely deregulated rent-controlled apartments when their occupants moved out. But while that drastic measure was reversed within a few years, the Urstadt Law has persisted, to the chagrin of many New York City tenants.

The overwhelming majority of New York State's regulated housing is located in New York City, but the real decisions about regulation are made in Albany, by the State Assembly, Senate, and the governor, thanks to the Urstadt Law

In response to challenges to the law, courts ruled that the set-up is perfectly constitutional. "It is to be noted that a municipality is a creature of the state and subject to its control," State Supreme Court Justice George Postel wrote. "It cannot challenge a reduction of its governmental powers by the state. In addition, thereto, the subject of rent control is one in which the local laws must remain consistent with state statues, since rent control is primarily a matter of state concern."

Still, thirty-odd years later, many tenant advocates believe that the Urstadt Law presents a clear case of regulation without representation.

Over one million apartments in the five boroughs are regulated, compared to a couple hundred thousand in all the other rent-regulated counties combined. But when the state legislature deals with rent regulation, the views of the city's representatives are generally overruled by upstate majorities. The trend is most evident in the State Senate, which is controlled by a Republican majority. There are only four Republicans among the 23 Senators currently representing New York City, yet the Republican vote decides almost all Senate issues.

"It puts tenants in New York City at a great disadvantage because legislators in upstate districts who have no rent-regulated tenants get to decide the fate of the city's renters," says Brian Honan, the legislative director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors, a statewide tenant organization. "The majority in the state senate has amazing power over people they don't represent at all."

Other tenant advocates, such as the Metropolitan Council on Housing, call the Urstadt rule "undemocratic" and call for home rule for New York City.

"Upstate Republicans always talk about how local control is a good thing and they fight for it in their own districts," said Honan. "They agree with Mayor Bloomberg that local control is a good thing in regards to education. We think local control is also better for housing. It's not fair for people who live elsewhere to decide the fate of people who live in Queens and Brooklyn."

Repeal of the Urstadt Law, in spite of its detractors, is highly unlikely. While the State Assembly has repeatedly passed repeal bills -- the most recent sponsored by Brooklyn Democrat Vito Lopez -- they never survive in the Senate. Campaign contributions from New York City's real estate interests ensure that upstate Republicans won't relinquish their power to decide the fate of New York City's regulated renters.

The 1997 rent laws will expire this year and will be renewed in some form or another by those running for state office in November's election. Tenant groups hope that rent regulations will be upheld, even strengthened, while landlord groups hope to see provisions to dismantle regulation.

"It's ridiculous to cap owner's income but not cap their expenses," said Frank Ricci, director of government affairs of the Rent Stabilization Association, the city's largest landlord group. "Over time you really limit the supply of housing. Some people pay much more than they should and some people pay much less than they should because you've artificially suppressed the market."

Although every seat in the state legislature will be filled in the forthcoming election, the traditional strength of incumbents, along with the new districts drawn by the legislature itself, make it a tough year for tenants concerned with rent regulation. The Senate may actually enhance its Republican majority with the new seat created in Brooklyn. In a race that tenants should watch closely, Democratic Senator Vincent Gentile will fight for his seat against Republican City Councilmember Martin Golden.

Sites For Beginners:

Other Recommendations:

  • The Rent Guidelines Board - Comprehensive apartment-hunting guide for beginners or old hands. Great links to research and data on NYC housing, including the 1996 Housing and Vacancy Survey.
  • City Limits - Investigative reporting about housing and other issues facing New York's low-income communities for 22 years. Archives available to 1996.
  • The Cooperator - Free online magazine for co-op and condo dwellers. Articles on current news affecting co-ops and condos, such as utilities deregulation or indictments of corrupt management companies, change monthly. Includes helpful Q&A sections in which tenant questions are answered by lawyers and accountants, and a reference library of detailed advice on topics such as building finance or selling your unit.
  • NYU Law School Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy - A detailed summary of the NYU Law School Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy's report "Reducing the Cost of New Housing Construction in New York City." Also features links to other research and the Center's programs and events.
  • Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve - HUD and the Urban Institute's new survey of homeless people and the service providers who work with them every day provides an intimate portrait of homelessness across America. Those surveyed revealed that more than 40% of homeless people work at least part time, 39% struggle with mental illness, and about a third of the homeless are now or were once child runaways. Only 8% are panhandlers.
  • Mr. Landlord - The Internet Resource for Landlords and Landladies. This comprehensive site offers a wealth of resources and free advice on do-it-yourself rental property management. Visitors can find help with setting up a webpage for their own rental ads or locating sample rent agreement forms. Its services also include a Q&A interactive discussion among fellow landlords; tax, mortgage and rent calculators; and a free weekly e-newsletter on management techniques.
  • Realty Times - This archive of free articles from the Realty Times, a realtors' professional publication, offers advice on issues of concern to apartment dwellers. Articles cover many legal concerns such as how to rent with roommates and tenants' rights to minor repairs, plus simple ideas on interior dicor or what to do if neighbors are noisy. The main page, http://realtimes.com, contains links on other residential real estate topics of interest to consumers, including mortgages and "The Truth About Condo Living."

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