Law gives renters more rights, raises deregulation limit

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As the state’s housing commissioner and a former state legislator, I believe I can offer a unique perspective on the historic rent-regulation bill Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law.

In my 19 years in the state Assembly, I represented tens of thousands of residents who called rent-regulated apartments home. I saw how important those apartments were to their daily lives, raising a family and living a good life here in New York state. But I also witnessed the constant worry these tenants felt as New York’s rent laws were systematically weakened, threatening their rights and homes.

Now, under the leadership of Cuomo, we have not only renewed the rent laws, but we have enacted the state’s strongest rent laws since 1974. We have brought stability to our rent-regulated housing stock and fairness to a system that too often favored landlords over tenants.

Why is rent regulation so important? Among American cities, New York City has the largest renter population, yet for decades affordable housing remained out of reach for many families and individuals. This gap and the resulting housing shortage led to an emergency declaration in 1969 and the passing of the first rent-regulation law. Because the law was based on emergency conditions, those conditions are subject to regular review by the state.

Unfortunately, instead of a rational discussion of the merits of the regulations over the last three decades, the process has been undermined by political dynamics, which have eroded the law year after year.

Conventional wisdom held that such erosion was an inevitable fact of life. Changes to the law in 1984, 1993, 1997 and 2003 increasingly threatened the availability of rent-regulated units and damaged tenants’ rights. There was little the state’s nearly 1 million rent-regulated tenants believed they could do to protect themselves from facing unaffordable rents or losing their homes.

But under Cuomo’s leadership, conventional wisdom was proven wrong. Working with the state Legislature, the governor crafted profound changes to our rent laws that will reverse the attrition of protections and the inequities that have long been considered the Albany norm.

Among the most important changes, the new law raises the deregulation rent threshold from $2,000 to $2,500, making this the first increase in the rent threshold since 1993. It also raises the income threshold from $175,000 to $200,000, the first change in the income threshold since 1997. These changes will help ensure that almost 100,000 units will stay in the rent-regulation system over the next few years and remain available for working-class New Yorkers.

Another important change this law makes is allowing landlords to collect only one vacancy bonus per year, reducing the manipulation of leases in order to push units out of the system. Finally, it also makes changes to the way improvements are calculated and verified for individual apartments, which will reduce a landlord’s ability to abuse these renovations as a tool to force units out of regulation.

Taken together, these changes represent a historic new direction for our rent laws, significantly leveling the playing field between the landlord and tenant. I speak from both legislative and executive experience when I say that the law Cuomo and the Legislature produced this year is the most positive news for rent-regulated tenants in more than 35 years.

But most importantly, it sends the signal that this government will protect our middle and working classes, ensuring our families are able to afford to live in the Empire State.

Darryl C. Towns

Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer

New York State Homes and Community Renewal

Albany, N.Y.

Updated 11:30 am, October 12, 2011
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