Brooklyn Boro

Energized tenant movement vows to keep fighting as historic rent reforms pass

"This is going to make a major difference in this community,” said one tenant.

June 14, 2019 Jeffery Harrell
A Crown Heights tenant at an April protest. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

State legislators on Friday passed a historic package of bills to increase tenant protections and close loopholes that landlords often use to raise rents, leaving members of a newly energized tenant movement ecstatic and relieved.

The legislation encompassed eight bills that were supported by a vast coalition of tenant and housing activist groups.

The vote was 36 in favor, 26 against in the Senate; and 95 in favor and 41 against in the Assembly.

“This bill is the strongest package of tenant protections New York has seen in almost a century,” said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie in a statement. “For decades, our communities have lost hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated units, but with this legislation, we are putting power back in the hands of tenants.”

The rent reforms will be permanent — changing the previous practice of renegotiating them every four years.

Avigail Martinez, 32, was in the small bedroom where she lives with her husband and four children when she heard about the agreement.

Martinez lives in a three-bedroom apartment, but is forced to rent out the other two bedrooms to strangers because her family can’t afford to pay the rent on their own. Her husband works as a chef’s assistant by day and spends several nights a week in a dialysis clinic to treat his kidney condition.

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Marcela Mitaynes, an organizer with Neighbors Helping Neighbors who encouraged Martinez to get involved in lobbying and demonstrating in favor of the legislation, went to Martinez’s apartment to give her the good news.

“We won because of you,” Mitaynes told her. “You’re an activist now.”

Martinez’s landlord raised her rent by taking advantage of a part of the Major Capital Improvement program — which allows landlords to raise rents to offset the cost of self-reported repairs — that was largely rolled back in the new legislation. Rent increases through this program are set to be lowered from 6 percent to 2 percent, meaning that the Martinez family’s rent could be lowered by as much as $200 a month.

“It would be a huge benefit — even a small decrease,” said Martinez “This is a big victory, not just for me but for lots of tenants.”

Martinez got involved with organizing when she learned there could be a way to lower her rent. She began taking trips up to Albany with her four kids to lobby for relief for tenants, and was there this weekend to see the legislation passed.

“They were long days, but the fight is worth it,” said Martinez.

Other tenants around Brooklyn celebrated the victory for themselves, as well as for the wider tenant movement.

Darryl Randall, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident who has lived in his building for 22 years, was ecstatic that he might see his rent go down.

“It’s really like a sigh of relief,” said Randall. “This is going to make a major difference in this community.”

Randall’s rent was also raised through the MCI program, by about $150. The increase came just after he was let go from his job as an office assistant at Columbia University.

Although the increase won’t be completely eliminated by the new law, Randall insisted that even a small relief on rent makes a huge difference for low-income tenants.

“6 percent to 2 percent? Dude, that is a tremendous help to me,” said Randall. “This just shows that we need to stay involved and get more people in the movement. We can really win something.”

Randall spent time organizing with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, one of several organizations behind the push for the reform legislation.

Meyli Sarmiento, a Sunset Park tenant who had her rent raised by almost $1,000 a month, said the legislation gave her “a new sense of calm.”

Sarmiento was given a “preferential rent,” a rent lower than the city-mandated maximum for rent-stabilized units, when she moved in.

Under the old laws, landlords could increase the rent to the maximum after a tenant renewed their lease. In 2018, her rent suddenly jumped from $940 to $1880.

Under the laws passed today, when renewing a lease landlords can no longer eliminate the discount and suddenly raise rent to the maximum.

“I’m very happy with the new laws, and happy that people in my neighborhood will have relief from displacement,” said Sarmiento. “I feel energized and ready to keep fighting.”

The real estate lobby fought reforms for years, and when details of the package emerged earlier this week they warned that it would discourage landlords from investing in their properties.

“The governor and the legislature are consigning hundreds of thousands of tenants to buildings that soon fall into disrepair. The manner in which the bill eliminates vacancy decontrol will have a significant adverse impact on the city’s production of new affordable housing,” John H. Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said in a statement. “The end result will be that the city’s housing crisis will get worse, with higher vacancy rates, less affordable housing and little relief for those New Yorkers who need the most help paying the rent.”

Mitaynes, the tenant organizer who has helped Sarmiento fight her rent increases, stressed that the fight wasn’t over yet.

She mentioned that the “Good Cause” eviction bill, which would have made eviction based on the inability to pay illegal in certain circumstances, was not passed, and also expressed disappointment that the MCI program was not completely eliminated.

Tenants and organizers from Neighbors Helping Neighbors, UHAB and a variety of other groups are now looking to the future of the tenants movement.

One organizer with the Upstate/Downstate Housing Coalition told the Brooklyn Eagle that fighting for funding for homeless services would likely be a newly prioritized goal for housing activists, along with ensuring that the new reforms are enforced.

“We knew it would be a big push, and we’re happy with what we won,” said Mitaynes. “But we still need to push for the laws that didn’t get through.”

The bill will advance to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for signature, and he has signaled his support.

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