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Columbia Spectator Staff

Low and middle-income renters say they're worried about being edged out of their homes in June when rent regulations are set to expire, bringing a million households across New York State up to market-rate rental prices they may not be able to afford. State Senator Adriano Espaillat has proposed a bill to extend and strengthen rent-control laws, but supporters said his ambitious agenda—which includes re-regulating almost 300,000 apartments and repealing legislation that has been in place since 1993 —is threatened by the interests of powerful landlords and the real estate industry. DRIVING RESIDENTS OUT Cynthia Doty, a Democratic district leader on the Upper West Side, has lived in a rent-controlled building for the past 32 years, but she said about half of the building has been converted to market-rate rentals. If rent regulations are not renewed before they expire on June 15, the tenants still occupying rent-controlled apartments—about half the building—will have to find new homes, she said. "Without rent regulation at all, the remaining tenants in the building would have to move," Doty said. "It would feel like a huge tax. People would be paying 75 percent of their income to rent." Mary Tek, an organizer with the advocacy group Tenants & Neighbors, said that the city has one million rent-stabilized units, which means that if one presumes these units have an average of two to three people occupying them, these changes could affect two to three million people. Ibrahim Kahn, a spokesperson from Espaillat's office, said that this is what's driving the Senator—who has the highest number of rent regulated apartments in his district, which covers much of northern Manhattan. "If Senator Espaillat does not get this done, so many of those families could lose their homes," Kahn said. STRENGTHENING THE LAW FOR RESIDENTS Mario Mazzoni, the chief organizer for The Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants' rights advocacy firm, said that widespread public support for the bill doesn't ensure that it will get passed in its current form, which includes measures to re-regulate housing formerly under the state-subsidized Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. "The landlords want to exempt apartments that are currently regulated from being covered, and they can do that in any number of ways," Mazzoni said. "Our main goal is to preserve all of the apartments we currently have and to recapture all of the apartments that were lost." Tek said she has faith the rent regulations will be renewed, but hopes the laws will be strengthened for tenants. "The laws are on the table," she said. "You have tenants on one side who have very strong interests, and then you have the landlords on the other side who are very powerful and wealthy. We fear that weakening amendments could be added to the law." Vacancy destabilization, which became part of state law in 1997, though it has been in City Council law since 1993, is one such provision. Under vacancy destabilization, over 300,000 apartments have been converted to market rate. Emily Margolis, a member of the Park West Village Tenants Association, said that she hopes vacancy destabilization will be repealed, but that there are those who would like nothing better than to see it continue. "New York City is becoming a place where young college graduates are no longer able to afford renting apartments," she added, noting that renewal of current rent-control laws—which she calls "very detrimental"—isn't enough to protect tenants. Tek said that her group wants the new rent-control bill to guarantee lease renewal. "A lot of tenants are afraid to complain because they face eviction," she said, adding that though threat of eviction is not legally permitted, landlords can make residents' lives difficult. "It keeps long-term New Yorkers who have dedicated a lot of energy to the city living in the neighborhood." 'MAKE-OR-BREAK-YEAR' Mazzoni said it's going to take a collective effort from residents, the city's 150-plus housing organizations, and state politicians to get the bill passed. "This is a make-or-break year," he said. "A lot of people say 'Oh, my Assembly member always votes the right way.' But people who support those bills are going to have to do more than vote, they're going to have to play hardball." Mazzoni added that it's up to residents to show their representatives that they support such strategies for getting the bill passed. "We're fighting an uphill battle in terms of the mainstream media," he said, noting that many real estate companies advertise in major papers. "People need to tell their senator, 'We want you to do whatever it takes, and we'll back you up if you do that.'" Doty said Governor Andrew Cuomo's public support of the bill doesn't hurt. "It's possible that it's going to be a harder fight there," she said of the State Senate. "But the fact that the Governor is for it means that he's going to put a lot of pressure." Doty added that rent regulation, now a fiscal matter, will probably be resolved as part of the state budget due in April. With a strong partnership between grassroots activists and legislative leaders, the bill has a fighting chance of getting through, Kahn said. "We feel pretty good about it. We think that we have the momentum to make it happen," he said of Espaillat's office. Still, tenants have a long way to go in the fight for affordable housing, said Paul Bunten, president of Westsiders for Public Participation. "I'm in favor of any legislation that might extend and strengthen the rent-stabilization law, but such legislation can only stem the tide of loss of affordable housing in New York City," he said. "It does not address the critical need to increase our stock of affordable housing." news@columbiaspectator.com

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