Date: May 2015

Originally Published: NY Daily News

New York City is in a dire housing crisis, one that must be attacked before our rent laws expire next month. It’s the government’s job — and in this case the governor’s personal responsibility — to ensure that thousands of New Yorkers do not see their rents rise excessively or lose their protection against arbitrary evictions.

If Albany does nothing, rent control laws will expire completely on June 15. That would be a disaster.

If the Legislature and governor simply keep our current rent laws in place, the city’s current slow-motion affordability crisis will continue: Countless families could be displaced — many of whom would enter an overcrowded, underfunded homeless shelter system.

What we need is robust new laws that protect renters from the flaws in the current regulation regime.

The clock is ticking. Yet we’re nowhere close to getting a law passed.

This month, during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, our city sent a clear message to Albany: The status quo of rapidly rising rents is seeing thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers forced out of their increasingly unaffordable neighborhoods. Rent laws cannot expire, and simply extending them would be a major loss for tenants. At a time when 600,000 households are spending more than 50% of gross income on rent and utilities, we need bolder action — along the lines that the mayor, supported by the New York City Council and a number of tenants’ rights advocacy groups, has pressed.

The state Assembly, led by Speaker Carl Heastie, has done its part, passing wise legislation that would not only keep rent regulations for another four years, but would close some dangerous loopholes in the system. Closely tracking recommendations made by Mayor de Blasio, it would additionally repeal a provision that allows apartments with monthly rents of at least $2,500 to become decontrolled when they become vacant.

But given the Senate’s entrenched ideological resistance, combined with turmoil in the wake of the arrest of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, it is looking unlikely that the state’s other legislative house will act.

It falls to Cuomo to pressure the Senate to not only renew but strengthen the laws. At the very least, the Senate should pass the Assembly bill. Ideally, we should go further: Banning automatic rent hikes upon vacancy and taking a hard line to prevent landlords from exploiting other provisions in the current law that let them substantially hike rents when they make capital improvements in between tenants.

What can Cuomo do? To begin with, he must take a stand — and say where he is on the current debate, ideally endorsing the mayor’s reforms. Then, he should use the bully pulpit to goad the Senate into making change happen.

Finally, there’s an elephant in the room that everybody in New York City knows about but Albany has failed to address. What we define as “affordable” under current law — which comes into play with many housing programs designed to help the working and middle class — isn’t actually affordable for a majority of New Yorkers. The area median income for many units on the market today does not come close what some of our neediest households make, so Albany must redefine what affordable means in New York City.

A steady stream of corruption scandals might give New Yorkers the impression that Albany is controlled by the luxury real estate industry, which is opposed to all these rent reforms. The governor can show his independence from luxury developers — including those who have donated massive sums to his own campaign accounts — by taking leadership in the fight for renters.