NEW YORK—The July 9 deal to put the New York State Senate back to work and restore the Democratic majority, however unsavory, was a huge victory for New York’s working people, especially tenants, say housing rights advocates.

At issue were progressive changes to New York rental law that were passed by the State Assembly. The coup itself was engineered in large party by New York City’s landlords, Rachel Rachlin, of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, told the World. The pro-tenant legislation was to be voted on in the State Senate June 10—a day before the coup d’état happened.

One change would be the repeal of the hated Urstadt Law, which puts control of the city’s housing laws in Albany. Rules around major capital improvements, or MCI could be changed. Currently, the law states that if a landlord makes major improvements to a building, such as installing new pipes, rent can be increased for the entire duration of the renter’s tenancy. Under the proposed new rules, increase in rent would be allowed to last only for 36 months—giving the landlord time to make back what was spent on MCI.

Currently, if a Section 8 or Mitchell Lama building becomes privatized, units can be rented at market value. However, the changes in the Assembly bill stipulate that these units would all become rent stabilized.

Perhaps the most important of the possible changes would be the repeal of vacancy decontrol. Currently, if rent goes above $2,000 per month in a rent-stabilized apartment, the unit automatically leaves the stabilization program and is able to be rented at market value. Since 2007, this has resulted in the loss of up to 350,000 affordable units to market value, and contributed to the overall gentrification of the city, Rachlin said.

The new rules would be retroactive, and would automatically bring these tens or hundreds of thousands of units back to costs affordable to middle- or low-income people.

The coup happened on June 9, when Democratic State Senators Hiram Monseratte, Queens, and Pedro Espada, Bronx, said that they would caucus with the Republicans, flipping the Senate, which was divided 32-30 in favor of the Democrats, into Republican hands. Later, Monseratte returned to the Democratic caucus, leaving the Senate deadlocked 31-31, with no clear leadership for weeks.

“Espada is someone who’s been in their pockets for a long time,” Rachlin said.

The landlords, Rachlin said, wanted to push the legislation off the agenda for the 2009 session. The thought that there would be little movement in 2010, an election year, and that they could delay through 2011, when the laws forcing rent stabilization expire.

New York City’s tabloid press, as well as Governor David Paterson, himself a Democrat, sought to portray the entire State Senate as a group of “do-nothings,” all of whom were responsible for the mess.

“That line was really hung on to by the New York Post,” said Rachlin. “But this really was a well-orchestrated coup by the landlord lobby, real estate lobby and the Republicans who were desperate to keep power.”

She added that the Democrats would have done a great disservice to the people of New York had they simply allowed the Republican caucus, and the turncoat Espada, to usurp power. Doing so would have put power into the hands of the Republicans and their backers, especially the big landlords, and away from regular people.

“In the last 40 years of control,” she said, “the Republicans have done nothing to preserve tenant rights, affordable housing, to meet the needs of NY’s working people on a lot of substantial issues.”

While “there are problems within the Democratic caucus,” she said there are progressive, pro-tenant legislators in there, including people like Bill Perkins and Liz Krueger, of Manhattan, and Andrea Steward-Cousins, of Yonkers.

Among the problems are senators like Espada who, being a swing vote, was able to force the Democratic caucus to name him Senate majority leader.

The Metropolitan Council on Housing, as well as Tenants PAC, which is a broad coalition of tenants’ rights groups, and others sent tenant lobbyists to Albany every single day during the coup and before, and will continue to do so.

“The real push for the tenant movement is to keep the Democrats to their word and force this legislation through. Next week is going to be a really exciting week,” Rachlin concluded.

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