If state government does not approve a bill to extend rent regulations by June 15, many Queens residents say they will be priced out of their apartments.
At a rally behind a church in Woodside last Thursday, community leaders and renters gathered to pitch a tent city they called “Cuomoville,” warning that such a campsite may become commonplace without renter protections.
“Jesus came into the world as a homeless person,” said Pastor Noel Moynihan of St. Mary’s Church. “I am glad to say that would not happen in New York; this is a city that has a heart.”
In New York City, approximately 1 million apartments are rent-stabilized and around 40,000 are rent-controlled, according to the city’s Rent Guidelines Board. In Queens, a 2008 survey showed 199,509 families residing in apartments with some form of rent regulation.
Under the various renter protections, landlords are prevented from raising rents beyond a specified amount. For rent-stabilized units, the permitted increase is set by the RGB and for rent-controlled apartments, the maximum base rent is set by the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
In both cases landlords are permitted to increase rents to reflect improvements made to their properties. In rent-controlled apartments landlords may raise rents 7.5 percent every two years until they reach the maximum base rent.
According to tenant advocates, many residents in both rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments have low incomes or are elderly and need low-cost housing.
However, Frank Ricci, a spokesman for the landlord advocacy group, Rent Stabilization Association, said that is not always the case. The organization has run an ad campaign claiming that many of those benefiting from rent regulations are wealthy Manhattanites. Ricci said in some cases, tenants in buildings with one rent-controlled unit may be paying higher rents to subsidize their neighbor, even if they earn less.
Though the system of renter protections may be imperfect, tenants including Jose Escalante of Woodside say they couldn’t afford to live without it. Escalante lives in a rent-regulated apartment on 67th Avenue, where he has spent more than half of his life. “Where will our families go? What about our children?” Escalante asked at the rally, fearing the disappearance of regulations.
Maria Lourdes Escobar said she pays $1,050 to live in her studio apartment in Jackson Heights, “which for me is very expensive. I earn barely enough to eat and pay the rent. I am one of many immigrants who doesn’t have enough money to go on vacation or anything like that,” Escobar said.
“Current laws are not strict enough. New York is our home and we are going to stay,” she said.
Bills proposed in the state Senate and passed in the Assembly would make it more difficult for landlords to take possession of rent-regulated apartments to use as personal residences and decrease the amount a landlord can raise rents when regulated units are vacated from 20 to 10 percent. The bills also heighten requirements for landlords wanting to increase rents and reform the Major Capital Improvement Program, making it so that landlords can only raise rents temporarily until their improvement costs are recouped.
Ricci said firm rent regulations make it difficult for some landlords to break even. “If you don’t have enough money to cover your costs, you don’t have enough money,” Ricci said.
There are financial hardship proceedings for struggling landlords, but for tenants who can’t afford their rent, the only option is to move. “There’s this misnomer that folks in these apartments are rich,” said Mary Abbate, associate executive director of Queens Community House. “The average income is between $35,000 and $40,000. At QCH the people we deal with in regulated apartments tend to be seniors.”
Abbate said that despite citywide grassroots efforts to appeal to the Bloomberg administration to create more low-income housing, many families have been left to struggle. Even housing that is billed as “affordable,” such as the development at Hunter’s Point South will likely be unaffordable to many New Yorkers, Abbate said.
At Hunter’s Point South, the low-range income for families is $32,000. On top of that, Abbate said every development initially billed as affordable “seems to have a life span.” In the past few years, numerous apartments have aged out of affordability, leaving long-term low-income residents with no place to go.
State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said 35,000 units in his district that would be impacted if rent regulations were not maintained. He expressed support for renewing the protections but worried he would not have a chance to vote on the bill if it was not brought to the floor. “Let’s get bus loads of people going up to Albany,” he said, urging renters to fight for the extension at the state capitol.
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D- Flushing) said she grew up in a rent-regulated apartment on the west side of Manhattan and knows how important it is to extend and strengthen tenant protections. “In Albany we are going to do whatever we can. This is at the top of the agenda,” Stavisky said.