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    01 February 2009

    Need a Rent-Controlled Apartment?


    The New York Assembly's Democratic majority is rolling out a package of bills to try to make housing more affordable by bolstering rent-control laws.
         
    Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has long pushed the issue of affordable housing, but with Democrats now controlling the Senate for the first time in 43 years, and a Democratic governor, Silver could gain support that has eluded him since 1997.
         
    “The longer we don't do this, the more apartments we lose from that affordable category,'' Silver said in an interview with The Associated Press Friday. “You have a foreclosure crisis going on, which is even more housing. That's a problem, so now obviously, we have a governor that has supported modifying rent regulation in the past, and we have a Senate Democratic majority that I believe are supporters.''
         
    Silver has been working on this since 1997 when he was forced to make concessions in rent-control laws that he described as landlord friendly. That year he delayed the adoption of a state budget for months because he was holding out to fight changes supported by former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, and the then-Republican led Senate.
         
    He had some success, but the changes still caused New York City to lose roughly 300,000 units that were previously rent-controlled, Silver said.

    Under the system established in 1997, landlords are allowed to raise rents and remove controls when the rent has risen to $2,000 a month or more, and the apartment becomes vacant or the tenant's income tops $175,000 a year. Those thresholds haven't changed since.
         
    One of the many Assembly bills would increase the threshold of tenant income to $240,000, and the monthly rent would have to be more than $2,700. The bill would require both thresholds to be met.
         
    “This has to be a priority especially during the economic downturn,'' Silver said. “It's clear that we have an affordable-housing crisis.''
         
    But landlord organizations argue that the reforms to rental laws in the late 1990s led to economic growth for the state. They also warn that making it easier for people with higher incomes and rents to retain rent-controlled units will depress the value of those buildings and affect the city's tax roles.
         
    “If you look back in the '60s, '70s and '80s you had essentially disinvestment in housing,'' said Marolyn Davenport, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “We weren't building any new housing. Certainly the amendments to the rent regulations are one of the things that turned that situation around. We've had housing construction on a large scale for the first time in decades.''
         
    One bill would prevent landlords from increasing the cost of a rent-controlled apartment when the tenant renews the lease. Another would reclaim previously rent-controlled apartments in New York City that cost less than $5,000 a month for cost containment.
         
    “Re-institute failed housing policies of the last 50 years that caused all kinds of abandonment issues? We finally got a change in that, and now we're facing an economic crisis,'' Davenport, said. “Tenants aren't the only ones facing the economic crisis. Some of these rent-regulated buildings, some of the bills would roll rent regulations back for units renting up to $5,000 -- some of them are just protecting high-income tenants.''
         
    Silver said many of the city's middle-income workers, including police officers, firefighters and teachers, are most affected by high rents. He said they're the New Yorkers who are more likely to take their expertise and careers with them to suburbs when they're forced to relocate to more affordable areas. Another bill Silver sponsored would increase the penalties that landlords would face if they harass tenants or violate orders on rent regulation.

    It's unclear whether he will get the support of the newly Democratic Senate, but Silver isn't letting the housing issue go.
         
    “It is working men and women in New York who we are trying to protect,'' he said. “We don't want New York City to become the city of the very rich and the very poor.''

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