Why We Can’t Wait: Rent Laws Must Be Fixed This Year


On February 9, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development submitted initial findings from the 2017 Housing and Vacancy Survey to the City Council’s Housing Committee. The survey, commonly known as the HVS, is conducted every three years by the U.S. Census Bureau for HPD to determine whether the vacancy rate for rental housing in the city is still below 5 percent, the emergency level required to continue rent-regulation laws. The full survey is expected to be released in the summer.
The HVS found that the vacancy rate remains low, at just 3.63 percent, but there are other, disturbing figures:
• The median asking rent for a vacant unit is $1,875 a month.
• The median income for rent-stabilized tenants is $44,560 a year, which means that any apartment that rents for more than $1,114 costs more than 30 percent of their income.
• The median contract rent for rent stabilized apartments is $1,269. • Half of all rent-stabilized tenants pay at least one-third of their income in rent. This is up from 33.1 percent in 2014 and 31.7 percent in 2011. (Low-income families commonly pay as much as 60 to 70 percent.)
• The vacancy rate for rent-stabilized apartments is only 2.06 percent.
• The vacancy rate for apartments renting for under $800, the level the millions of New Yorkers with annual household incomes below $32,000 can afford, is only 1.15 percent.
These findings illustrate the depth of New York’s housing crisis. As rents and rent burdens have risen inexorably, landlord profits have skyrocketed, passing an astounding 40 percent of every rent dollar, according to data in the city Rent Guidelines Board’s Income & Expenses report. At the same time, homelessness remains at record levels despite determined efforts by Mayor Bill de Blasio and social services commissioner Steve Banks to prevent homelessness through expanded eviction-prevention programs and attempts to increase the supply of affordable housing. 
The reason for this chronic and acute crisis is not hard to see. In 1997 and again in 2003, the state legislature with the compliance of the governor, after taking large campaign contributions from the real-estate industry, grafted a number of major loopholes into rent and eviction protections, precipitating steep rent increases and the complete deregulation of hundreds of thousands of units. The laws were renewed with only minor corrections in 2011 and 2015, despite massive grass-roots mobilizations demanding that the loopholes be closed.
New York City is losing thousands of affordable apartments every year. But the rent-stabilization laws do not come up for renewal until 2019, so the state legislature is not legally required to consider them this year. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.
“We can’t wait another year with the broken laws in place,” says Met Council executive director Ava Farkas. “Hundreds of thousands of tenants across the city are facing crushing rent burdens, and tens of thousands of families are forced from their homes each year by rents they can’t afford. The legislature created this crisis and has to fix it now, not in June 2019.”
The continuing loss of New York’s affordable housing stock is a human tragedy and a policy disaster. If we were to lose another 10,000 apartments as the broken laws remain in effect until June 2019, it would cost billions of dollars to replace them—funding which does not exist, given the loss of federal support. We need to act now to preserve this irreplaceable resource or the housing crisis will only get worse.
- Kenny Schaeffer