Volume 20, Number 44 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 16 - 22, 2011
Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (center) held a press conference last Sunday to highlight the need to reinstate rent regulations.
Silver, new study focuses on renewing rent regs
BY Aline Reynolds
Financial District resident Kathleen Moore nearly lost her Cedar Street apartment to tumbling debris on 9/11. Come June, she might lose it again unless the State reinstates its rent regulation laws.
Moore and thousands of other residents Downtown and citywide rely on stabilized rents to make ends meet. On June 15, the state’s rent stabilization laws, which have been in place for decades to protect low- and middle-income families from homelessness, are set to expire. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, along with other elected officials and housing advocates, are fighting to have the laws be extended and enriched.
A primary objective of the bill, already introduced in the Assembly, is to keep tenants from being driven out of their homes.
“Rent hikes are quickly eroding our stock of affordable housing… the implications for the future of our middle-class families cannot be more dire,” Silver said at a press conference held at City Hall on Sunday, March 13. The city, he continued, would become “the largest and most exclusive gated community on the planet” if any more affordable housing were lost.
Downtown Manhattan thrives on its diverse population, said the Speaker, thanks largely to affordable housing. The bill he is co-sponsoring would help protect residences like Independence Plaza North from falling out of rent stabilization, which occurs when landlords deregulate vacant apartments that naturally inch toward market-rate levels.
Community Service Society (C.S.S.) of New York, a nonprofit that assists vulnerable populations, just released “The New Housing Emergency,” a study that reveals the severe shortage in affordable housing across the city. According to the study, more than 10,000 rent-regulated apartments are lost in the city each year because of vacancy decontrol, capital improvement rent increases and costly individual apartment improvements, according to the study.
More than 48,000 apartments below 14th Street were rent-regulated as of 2008, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the C.S.S. The area had lost 13,200 apartments affordable to middle-income households – or 16 percent of the number available in 2000 – and 9,000 apartments affordable to low-income households, or 17 percent of the 2000 stock.
According to Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst for C.S.S. and the lead researcher for the study, under the current system vacant apartments can easily become deregulated. Waters said Manhattan has been hit the hardest by vacancy decontrol.
“As a result,” said Waters, “we’re having some of the fastest losses, both at the low-income and the middle-income points.”
Nearly all apartments in Manhattan below 96th Street, including the Lower East Side and Chinatown, become deregulated upon tenants’ vacancy, according to Waters. “That’s why there are hardly any vacant apartments on the market that will be stabilized for a tenant moving in.”
David Jones, C.S.S.’s chief executive officer, alluded to the “worst recession in living memory” as a large contributor to the hardships working class families citywide are suffering from today. One-third of all New Yorkers, he noted, are living in poverty.
“We’re starting to see the problems that low- and moderate-income families are having, just keeping their heads above water, being in the position so they don’t become homeless,” said Jones. “Anything we can do at this point to make sure those New Yorkers maintain their housing at a reasonable rate will be critical not only for them and their families, but for the very fabric of this state.”
The pressures on the existing affordable housing stock citywide are dangerously high, according to Assemblyman Vito Lopez, chair of the Assembly’s housing committee. He noted the large discrepancy between market-rate apartment vacancies and affordable apartment vacancies.
“Unless we put this bill in and make adjustments that are critical to the survival of affordable housing,” said Lopez, “I think we missed the boat.”
The bill would protect low- and middle-income families by repealing vacancy decontrol, reducing allowable rent increases and capping major capital improvement charges. The law would also cut in half the amount by which a landlord can raise rents following a vacancy and put deregulated units, such as those in Independence Plaza North, back into rent regulation. It would also increase high-income and high-rent deregulation thresholds and allow New York City to strengthen its rent protections beyond the State’s purview.
The law, however, would go beyond protecting the poor from homelessness, according to Downtown residents who attended the press conference in support of the bill.
“It’s particularly difficult to live here unless you make a lot of money, particularly with affordable housing going away with the existing laws,” said Bill Love, a member of Community Board 1 who lives in Gateway Plaza in Battery Park City.
“Not everyone who lives [in Battery Park City] earns a million dollars a year,” said Linda Belfer, another Battery Park City resident and C.B. 1 member. She pointed out that there are middle-class families in the neighborhood that wholly depend on stabilized housing.
“With rents constantly going up, they’re being forced out of their apartments, and it’s a terrible situation,” said Belfer. “I’m hoping to see something, in light of the economy, that will help the people in New York who are suffering a great deal.”
“I do hope this legislation will prevail,” echoed Moore, who is struggling to keep up with her regulated rent payments. Without rent stabilization, she said, prices could quadruple, and she could become homeless overnight.
There are 19 stalled construction projects in Lower Manhattan that could become affordable and thereby help diversify the community.
“Unlike many of the planned stalled buildings, a new complex for working people would likely be instantly filled with tenants,” said Tom Goodkind, chair of the C.B. 1 Affordable Housing Task Force, citing the N.Y.C. Department of Buildings website.
“Many of our area’s founders dating back from the 1960s are still renting in affordable artist loft spaces, and the establishment of our community may not have occurred at all without the New York State Mitchell-Lama housing of Southbridge Towers and I.P.N.,” said Goodkind.
Silver said he anticipates that the bill will pass the Senate, and is confident that “Governor [Andrew Cuomo] will join [the Assembly] in making a priority about enhancement of rent regulation as we go forward.”