We all know the rent is too damn high in New York. But the rent hikes tenants have experienced over the past year are truly a new high – or a new low – for our city and state.
Most of the “deals” landlords offered during the first year of the pandemic, when many high-income New Yorkers left the city and renters experienced a short burst of consumer power, have since disappeared. Landlords are raising the rents back to pre-2020 levels, and then some. The median rent for a vacant Manhattan apartment now exceeds $4,000 per month – a 25 percent increase over 2021. Meanwhile, the citywide average rent has hit $2,750 – a rent that would be affordable only to a household making $110,000 or more. According to our analysis at the Community Service Society (CSS), that’s a 74 percent increase since 2014, when incomes have only gone up 16 percent.
What’s to blame for this rent madness? If you ask some people, it’s New York’s tenant protections.
Landlords are claiming to the press and in public testimony that the state’s landmark 2019 rent law reforms – the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA) – wreaked havoc on the housing stock. Rather than pointing to the pandemic, persistent unemployment, or the underwhelming federal commitment to housing subsidies, landlords instead blame state government for regulating rents. Meanwhile, the landlord lobby has the gall to announce publicly that they are warehousing 20,000 rent stabilized apartments as political payback, and demanding as ransom that the state allow them to rent them out at current market rates.
Don’t believe the hype. According to the latest research from CSS, HSTPA isn’t bringing down building conditions and has kept tens of thousands of apartments affordable. The problem with rents in New York City is speculation, not regulation.
In a soon-to-be released brief, CSS researchers analyzed the results of our annual Unheard Third survey of low-income New Yorkers, as well as the latest findings from the city’s periodic Housing and Vacancy Survey. We found that since 2019, complaints about building conditions, services and safety declined in tandem for all low-income tenants, whether they were rent regulated or not.
Where we do see conditions decline, however, is in buildings where landlords played games with their mortgages to grasp short-term profits. A recent study by Local Initiative Support Corporation and University Neighborhood Housing Program found that between 2018 and 2020, buildings whose landlords took on increasing debts based on rising property values had almost three times the number of code violations compared to those that did not. Once again speculation, not regulation, proves to be the culprit.
Meanwhile, thanks to HSTPA, a whopping 15,670 apartments that would have otherwise left rent stabilization since 2019 have remained regulated, and kept their rents close to the citywide average rate of $1,500. On average, that represents $3,600 in annual rent savings for each of the households living in these apartments, or $56.4 million collectively per year – and rising.
We also found that low-income rent stabilized tenants were much more likely to access Covid-related emergency rental assistance and reduced rents from their landlords than their unregulated neighbors. With the protections built into rent regulation, tenants are much more willing to speak up, organize, and demand what they need from both the government and their landlords. Any law that keeps apartments stabilized helps build tenants’ power, confidence, and ability to get what they deserve.
If we want to put a stop to New York City’s rental madness, we shouldn’t end or undermine HSTPA, as landlords and their allies are calling for, but rather take the following four actions.
Defend: with landlords and developers currently suing to reduce HSTPA or revoke it altogether, we need to support all legal efforts to protect the law from challenges as they work their way through the courts. (So far, the courts have rightfully upheld the law.)
Enforce: the state must actively enforce every provision of HSTPA and issue all the regulations necessary to translate bill text into agency action.
Educate: many key parts of rent regulation enforcement are triggered by tenant complaints, but tenants will only speak up about violations of their rights if they know those rights exist in the first place.
Expand: we need to build on the successes of HSTPA and both support efforts to establish rent regulation in more jurisdictions (as the city of Kingston is moving to do right now) and pass legislation like Good Cause eviction protections and a statewide Right to Counsel which will improve tenant security and affordability for all.
If we want to stop rent gauging and get housing costs under control, we need to push forward a bold agenda to curb speculation, expand renter’s rights, and build more affordable housing.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.