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June 25, 2019

This rent regulation breakthrough is a big deal: Cynthia Nixon praises the reform win

June 12, 2019
Ella Gordon of Flushing, Queens, holds a sign as she listens in on a meeting of the Rent Guidelines Board at their headquarters on Reade St. Tenants and housing advocates were on hand to protest rent increases in rent-stabilized apartments across the city. (Warga, Craig / XX)

Last year in New York City, over 60,000 people were homeless on any given night; the total population that experienced homelessness was more than twice that. It is estimated that one in 10 public high school students were homeless at some point last year as well.

Homelessness here is at its highest levels since the Great Depression — in a city where well over 100,000 units sit empty.

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This is not just a New York City crisis. Statewide, more than 90,000 people are homeless on any given night, and more than 100 of our neighbors are evicted every day from homes across the state. New York is already the most unequal state in the country, and the gap between rich and poor is growing wider by the day.

I was raised by my mom in a rent regulated, five-flight walk up. I was fortunate to be born and come of age in a city where a single mother could raise a family with dignity, and a young artist could thrive; where nurses and teachers and all the other workers who made New York run could build a life here. The state’s rent laws are what made that New York possible.

Those rent laws, which protect about 2.4 million regulated tenants by guaranteeing lease renewals and limiting rent increases, give a baseline of stability to these families and help keep all of our communities intact. But in recent decades, the real estate industry has pushed Albany to chip away at those protections, amending the laws to allow landlords to raise regulated rents more rapidly and deregulate units altogether. This has had predictable and familiar effects across the state: harassment of tenants, skyrocketing rents, displacement, and homelessness.

This Saturday, June 15, the rent laws expire again. The question we face is whether New York will become a state just for the wealthy, or for all of us.

Late on Tuesday, in an historic agreement, the two houses of the state Legislature took an enormous step forward, choosing the interests of all New Yorkers over the wealthy few.

Over the last 18 months, an impressively broad coalition of tenants across the state united around a call for “universal rent control”: nine bills, mostly designed to guarantee true stability for regulated tenants by rolling back all the loopholes of the last era.

In addition to ending vacancy decontrol, which has allowed landlords to take apartments out of rent regulation altogether, the universal rent control bills and Tuesday’s legislative agreement address another of the most egregious loopholes, Major Capital Improvement (MCI) increases. MCIs allow landlords to permanently raise rents to pay for upgrades they make to their properties, whether or not tenants want or need them. MCIs are one of the main causes of widespread loss of affordability and displacement. Ending the abuses of MCIs is a critical step towards ending our housing crisis.

The rent control bills and the subsequent legislative agreement also go beyond protecting the pool of currently regulated tenants, building a foundation for strengthening tenant protections statewide moving forward. In order for cities like Buffalo, Kingston and Rochester to face their own growing housing crises, the rent laws must be expanded to allow municipalities statewide to opt into regulation.

I ran for governor as part of a movement to transform the state’s politics by making the Democratic Party more accountable to working-class people. I may have lost my race, but the movement won big. We brought in fierce new legislators who have fought hard alongside veteran tenant advocates to seize this moment. The leaders of the Senate, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and of the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie, have in turn taken a bold step forward with Tuesday’s groundbreaking legislative agreement, which captures much of what was included in the nine universal rent control bills.

But the days of last-minute backroom deals are far from over in Albany. As the real estate industry bears down with all its might in this final stretch, legislative leaders must stand firm and vote with the courage of their convictions, and with the interests of their constituents at heart.

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And Gov. Cuomo must keep his word to sign into law any bill the two houses of the Legislature agree upon. We are watching closely. Money talks, but we can be louder. Those who don’t stand up for tenants today may soon be facing their own evictions from Albany.

Nixon is an actor and activist.

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