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Will the State Senate Save Rent Control?

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

tenants rights march
Photo (cc) bmercer

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.


"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.

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.

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Municipal Neglect

By James Epstein

In the summer of 1975, at the height of New York's fiscal crisis, the Municipal Archives and Record Center was forced to close its doors when its sole employee was laid off in a wave of city-wide cutbacks. For the next seven months, the Archives' massive collection -- arguably the most important body of manuscripts and photographs relating to the city's past--sat unattended in an office space at 23 Park Row, above the storefront of J & R Music World.

The Municipal Archives has come a long way since that appalling episode: there are now 19 full-time staff members. But the story remains emblematic of the fiscal neglect that continues to this day; and more recently that neglect provides a backdrop to the recent controversy over who should take possession of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's papers.

Instead of going straight to the giant compact storage units in the basement of the Archives' present home at 31 Chambers Street, the former mayor gave his papers to the new Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs--a move that provoked a demonstration in front of City Hall, led by prominent urban historians and archivists.

But those who say these 2,114 boxes of records belong with the city have not quite focused on an even greater outrage, which ironically has provided an excuse for the former mayor's archival grab. The department's abysmal funding still imposes severe constraints on its ability to manage its holdings.

Since the Records Center spun off from the Municipal Reference Library in 1950, its holdings have moved through four different locations and two city agencies--and were nearly destroyed in a couple of near catastrophes.

Under the direction of director, Kenneth R. Cobb, the collection has grown to a massive 150,000-cubic feet, or twice the size of the New York State Archives in Albany. Its treasures include a set of tax photographs from the World War II era, with a picture of every building in the five boroughs; the assessment rolls from the past three centuries; original drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park; and the most comprehensive collection relating to criminal justice in the English-speaking world.

But caring for this collection requires resources the Archives desperately lacks. With a fiscal year 2001 budget of a paltry $1.2 million, its main deficiency has been storage. To ensure the long-term survival and readability of historical manuscripts and photographs, well-funded archives keep their collections in temperature-controlled environments.

Ira Galtman, who interned at the Records Center as a graduate student, and who currently serves as President of the New York Archivists Round Table, stresses the importance of cool air for historical collections. "Any time you don't store archival material in climate control conditions, you leave the records vulnerable to a variety of causes of damage. It's a combination of mold and insect infiltration. And the papers will become more fragile, more brittle."

But keeping millions of documents cold is costly. Two of the Archives' former locations--238 Williams Street and the Tweed Courthouse--had no air conditioning. The current headquarters at 31 Chambers Street is a climate-controlled facility, but it houses a fraction of the total holdings. Only about 20,000-cubic feet can be stored on site, which is a little less than one-seventh of the collection. The remainder is housed at a Brooklyn facility without temperature control. As matters stand, storage consumes the bulk of the Archive's funding, at $587,000 per year, but complete temperature control would cost far more. Happily, the manuscripts have held up remarkably well, but many film negatives and prints have deteriorated from heat.

While the Records Center continues to microfilm, conserve, and process its collection, it still faces a tremendous backlog, which hinders researcher's use of the collection. The mayors' papers are an egregious example: processing delays provide the justification for denying the Municipal Archives immediate custody of the Giuliani papers. According to Director Cobb, these collections serve as the "heart" of the Archives' historical treasures, and 75 percent of patrons doing research other than genealogy wind up using the mayors' papers.

Currently, the Record Center faces a two-mayor backlog. With help from the City University of New York's LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, this year it will begin processing the papers of Mayor Abraham Beame, who left office in 1977. While the Koch collection is fully catalogued, no immediate funds are available to tackle the boxes retrieved after Dinkins' demise.

But since both staff and director are used to working in an under-funded atmosphere, these papers are made accessible to researchers before they are cataloged. The Municipal Archives' credo includes allowing the public complete access soon after a collection arrives. Since preliminary inventory lists are compiled as soon as the boxes are received at 31 Chambers Street, a researcher's hunt can be narrowed to a few cartons.

"It's a city with lots of financial needs, even before 9/11," said Ira Galtman, President of the New York Archivists Roundtable. "You're competing with the money you need to pay for policemen, fire fighters, and street repair. The average person doesn't seem to be materially affected by cutting an archive's budget."

Read "Creating the Best Archives for the City" by Saul Cohen
Read "The Damage Is Already Done" by Richard Wandel


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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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