More than one million apartment dwellers in and around New York City are getting new protections against big rent increases under a landmark tenants' rights bill signed into law Friday.
"This is probably the best day I have ever had in Albany, in the entire 17 years I have been here," said Democratic State Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan.
The measure, which passed the Democrat-controlled Senate and Assembly on Friday afternoon and was immediately signed into law by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, strengthens the existing rent stabilization and rent control rules that govern rental increases and evictions in many older, multiunit apartments.
The Senate approved the package, announced earlier this week by the legislative leaders, 36-26. The Assembly followed suit soon after, 95-41.
The bill also makes the rules permanent, eliminating the need for leaders in Albany to regularly renew the law, which was set to expire Saturday.
Lawmakers voted to extend several protections throughout the state, including one prohibiting security deposits of more than one month's rent. The law will also authorize cities throughout the state to opt into rent stabilization rules.
The measures are expected to face court challenges from real estate interests.
BREAKING DOWN SOME OF THE RENTAL PROTECTIONS
The rent deal eliminates Vacancy Decontrol, which allows a rent-regulated apartment to shed its protections for tenants when rent tops $2,733 per month. Vacancy Decontrol began in the 1990s.
Major Capital Improvements (MCIs) allow landlords to increase the rent for a unit when they repair or replace big-ticket items like boilers. This helps landlords pay for improvements. This deal limits MCI rent increases to 2 percent. The limit was previously 6 percent per year.
Individual Apartment Improvements (IAIs) allow landlords to increase a tenant's rent after making improvements to their apartment. This deal limits IAI rent increases to 2 percent.
Rent for a rent-stabilized apartment that is less than the maximum allowed. The catch is that when a lease is up, a landlord can hike the rent to the legal limit, often pricing tenants out. The deal guarantees a tenant the Preferential Rent during the whole time the tenant is living in the unit.
A landlord's ability to increase a unit's rent up to 20 percent once it is vacated. The deal repeals the Vacancy Bonus.
WHAT DIDN'T MAKE IT INTO THE DEAL
The "Good Cause" bill calls for extending to market-rate tenants some of the protections that those living in rent-regulated apartments enjoy, including protections prohibiting eviction without cause. This "Good Cause bill" was not included in the deal.
REACTION AROUND NEW YORK
The law is a big victory for tenants, housing advocates, and many progressive groups that say high rents in New York City are forcing out many lower and middle-class residents. It's also a stunning defeat for the New York City real estate industry, long one of the most politically powerful forces in the state capitol.
"The fact that it has taken us all this time to get here, but in 2019 we are going to undo decades of landlord-endorsed legislation and even the scales of justice and give tenants back rights they lost over the past 20 years," Democratic Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said.
Landlords have warned that apartments may fall into disrepair if owners aren't allowed to raise the rent high enough to cover the cost of improvements. The Partnership for New York City, a leading business advocacy organization, said the changes could backfire.
"This rent reform package will inevitably lead to the same loss of decent, middle-class housing that we experienced in the 1970s and 1980s," the group said in a statement. "It is not enough to maintain affordability if it means tenants are living in terrible conditions."
Tenants and advocates argue that high rents are a leading cause of income inequality in the nation's largest city, leading to the elimination of affordable housing and turning many neighborhoods into the reserve of the well-heeled.
"It's destroying New York City, destroying its diversity, which is its beauty," said Corine Ombongo-Golden, a teacher who has lived in a rent-stabilized apartment in the Bronx for 17 years.
The rent stabilization and control laws were written decades ago to preserve affordable housing amid the post-war boom. Since then, the rules have slowly been eroded and thousands of units have been taken out of stabilization.
The changes approved Friday will eliminate a landlord's ability to take a unit out of the system based on a tenant's income and further restrict landlords' abilities to justify rent increases through improvements and upgrades.
Passage was made possible last fall when Democrats took control of the state Senate, giving them a lock on power. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins worked out the deal, without much input from Cuomo, who left the negotiations to lawmakers.
Stewart-Cousins, who grew up in public housing and is the first African American woman to lead a legislative chamber in New York, said that after decades of siding with the landlords, Albany is now listening to the tenants.
"It was the speaker and I that realized we had to get rent done," Stewart-Cousins said to members of the news media Friday. "We've always understood it was our job as a legislature to do it."
The governor, often considered an ally of big real estate, faintly praised the agreement earlier this week at a news conference but released a more celebratory statement Friday.
"I'm confident the measure passed today is the strongest possible set of reforms that the Legislature was able to pass and are a major step forward for tenants across New York," Cuomo said.
Stewart-Cousins and Heastie announced the two-way deal Wednesday.
Heastie joined housing advocates at a rally Friday before the vote and reminded the advocates, some of whom turned against him as the debate over rent reform dragged on, that they should never doubt the Assembly, also known as "the People's House."
"In dark ages, when it was a Republican Senate and a Republican governor, the Democratic members of the Assembly always stood strong," Heastie said. "I just hope that in the future on the same issues, that all of you advocates give the Assembly members the benefit of the doubt. We've never failed you, and we will never fail you."
Not only was it historic legislation, but many lawmakers also noted that the bill passed both houses in the light of day. Albany has often been known for its votes in the middle of the night.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.