Richardson Myrie Meeting

Civic Minded 4 – Housing – Richardson and Myrie

On Saturday, April 27 Diana Richardson held her fourth Civic Minded meeting of the year at P.S. 61 at the corner of Empire Boulevard and New York Avenue. As advertised last meeting the subject was housing and Richardson knew two hours would not be sufficient, so the next meeting in May on the 18th is to continue on the same subject. Even with the second meeting scheduled there was a sense of urgency in this meeting; one reason for this would be that the current Rent Laws expire in June. Thus many people in the audience were cut off; they were told that this meeting had to be limited to questions and comments about the new legislation. In the course of making the best use of the time, Richardson kept her introductory remarks short and soon turned the floor over to Senator Zellnor Myrie. She and Myrie have a list of nine bills they wish to get through the State Legislature to present to Governor Cuomo, and they are looking to maximize support for these bills to get as much as they possibly can.

As always with Richardson's meetings, step one is education, and step two is action. Senator Myrie began the education part of the meeting by going over the history of rent regulation starting in the 1920's, when, in the wake of World War I, a rent law was passed putting virtually all apartments in New York under rent control. The history since then is one of struggle with the landlords' interests on one side and tenants' interests on the other, with both sides waxing and waning according to the political atmosphere. The landlords have been largely successful in bringing Rent Control to an end, but now in its place is Rent Stabilization. The landlords' attack, which has been more successful recently involves many points – one of them is vacancy decontrol. When someone leaves an apartment, it can go at the market rate. Another way of increasing rents is to do capital improvements, which can be done several times a year. Each one can increase a tenant's rent. One would think that when the improvement is complete and paid for, the old rent would be restored. However, that is not the case; one keeps paying for the improvement in perpetuity. Since it is in the landlord's interest to get rid of tenants and increase the rent, there is an incentive to get rid of long-time residents, who are often people who have grown old in their apartments. Landlords use an array of tools to do this, ranging from the legal – paying a lump to the renter to leave – to the illegal, turning off services, refusing to renew a lease, sending intimidating people to make threats. When these cases come to court, and many don't, the landlord has the advantage. The landlord often has a lawyer on staff while tenants have to prove poverty to get an attorney from Legal Services. Also the landlords have worked hard at getting the courts to work for them. Housing Court Judges are not elected, and they pride themselves on settling cases efficiently, which usually mean an eviction.

Some of the politicians who have favored the landlords are Peter Vallone former Speaker of the City Council whose chief of staff worked for the RBNY (the Real estate Board of New York), Mayor Bloomberg with his belief that business methods can solve all problems and both Mayor DiBlasio and Governor Cuomo. The first has encouraged development with so-called Affordable Housing attached, and the latter whose largest single source of support is made up of real estate donations. And then for years it seemed the Republicans had a lock on the State Senate aided by the breakaway Democrats of the Independent Democratic Caucus who voted with them. However, the recent elections have changed the equation. As one of the speakers pointed out, “There are three people in the room when a decision is made final.” One is the Speaker of the Assembly, the other is the Speaker of the Senate and the last is the Governor.” It is now two to one in the fight for tenant rights and Cuomo can no longer look to Republicans to stave off his own party.

Thus it has come to be that there is now the possibility of undoing the damage that has been done. Each of the nine bills is an attempt at reform to fix a serious problem. As both Myrie and Richardson said it is not at all sure what the fate of these bills will be. For one thing, only a handful of politicians refuse to take money from the real estate lobby. Richardson said, “Many people who you think would support these measures in fact have not made up their minds.” It is only through publicizing these proposals and pressuring the politicians in the middle that the power of people can stand up to the power of money. People power tends to grow sometimes and shrink at others. Right now it has grown a lot. However, the power of money is always there, paying the politicians, paying the media, paying “research” organizations. So when the people can win, it has be decisive. If the decisions are going to ultimately be made by three people in a room, they need to hear the noise of the people coming through the windows so they don't pick up the phone when a big donor calls.

Richardson got three housing activists to run through the nine bills and explain their provisions. One person listed on the agenda did not make it. Then at the end of the meeting Richardson and Myrie began enlisting people. First of all getting them to come to Albany to testify in favor of the Bills. They have also created an upstate/downstate coalition particularly with the representative from Syracuse. Richardson and Myrie seem totally energized; they have already passed numerous bills in the legislature now that the political landscape is so changed. It will be very interesting to see if they can reverse the direction of events over the last two decades. The time is surely right. The current rent laws expire in June, everyone sees the homeless population is exploding, rents are rising, and developers are tearing down housing to build more and more high end developments. If one looks at Crown Heights, one sees all of these things going on – more and more shelters, rising rents, and seemingly endless development creeping closer and closer., but maybe this monster can be stopped in its tracks.

– John DeWind