Since the beginning, the purpose of the Epicenter newsletter has been at least in part to spur readers to actually do something. Be informed, yes, but also participate in some form or another in the myriad civic and political and community conversations happening constantly in New York. Usually, that call to arms is a little more diffused and esoteric – get involved in open streets! Make your displeasure with Rikers known! — but today I have something very concrete for you to do.
If you suspect you might live in an apartment that was once rent stabilized, or hell, even if you don’t, use the nonprofit group JustFix’s easy online tool to request your unit’s rent history and stabilization status from the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. You’re entitled to it and it doesn’t cost anything, and it might be 10 minutes that could save you a whole lot of money and strife in the future. If nothing else, it’s always nice to exercise your rights.
That might be particularly crucial now, as an analysis by that same group, expanded on by reporting and a helpful interactive map in news site THE CITY, points to landlords failing to register their rent-stabilized apartments in potential violation of the law. Specifically, the analysis found that the number of apartments that had been registered on property tax bills as stabilized had declined precipitously over the last couple years, from roughly 869,000 in the 2019 tax year to about 803,000 in 2021, even as affordable housing projects added thousands more to the stock.
The issue of a shrinking stabilized stock isn’t new, and in fact advocates and elected officials have been raising flags about it for decades. What’s notable especially notable about this particular decline is not only its size but the fact that it happened after the state lawmakers actually moved to address the issue by passing the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, colloquially known as the 2019 rent laws, whose marquee achievement was enormously restricting the circumstances under which units could be destabilized. For example, it did away with decontrol once rents hit certain thresholds.
Landlords face little retribution for not following the law
In theory, the laws would ensure that the drying up of stabilized units would not only stop but be reversed, as additions would not be counteracted by large numbers of units leaking out. The analysis suggests this hasn’t been the case, not because the laws inherently haven’t been able to achieve their objectives, but because landlords may not be following the laws and facing little in the way of enforcement. In the CITY article, HCR and a landlord group separately contended that there’s simply a lag in the filing of the paperwork, in part owing to lingering Covid-19-driven delays. That might be partly the case, but the analysis also shows that some landlords did register stabilized apartments, just fewer of them than they had before, signaling that it’s not entirely a paperwork filing issue.
The point is, fairly or unfairly, the first line of defense against the erosion of stabilization rights is you. The city and state don’t necessarily have the resources to monitor active compliance for thousands of landlords with hundreds of thousands of units. Yet you certainly have the ability to get your own rent history for your unit and check if your landlord is out of compliance. If they are, you can report them to HCR, but oftentimes a simple reminder that you are aware of the law and would like to “remind” them that they are in violation of it will do the trick, especially if you just moved into a new apartment that you think may have been registered as stabilized before your arrival.
It’s also not a bad time to add your voice to the growing chorus in favor of knee-jerk NIMBYism and in favor of more housing construction in New York overall. No one is seriously pushing for free-for-all construction that will demolish neighborhoods with little public input à la mid-20th-century Robert Moses, but increasing volumes of New Yorkers are coming around to understanding the absurdity of, for example, opposing a housing project on purity grounds and ending up with a smelly, noisy truck depot instead.
Community boards have a lot of influence
The support for things like converting vacant office space to housing starts down at the community level, and there are good signs on that front. In the past week, Bronx Community Boards 5, 6, and 9 expressed support for residential conversion plans, as reported in the Bronx Times. Low key as they are, community boards have huge influence over planning and construction in their neighborhoods, and so whether these plans come to fruition or not also depends on you, people at the ground level who can push in one direction or another. This is only gaining salience as the powers that be, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, increasingly throw their weight behind viewing the construction of new housing not only as something nice but addressing a five-alarm emergency.
It will also be quite necessary in the eventuality that rent stabilization itself gets taken down by the Supreme Court, a real possibility in the near term. Landlord groups are currently challenging the constitutionality of rent stabilization writ large, hoping that an ideologically motivated Supreme Court will void stabilization laws across the country. SCOTUS has already explicitly upheld stabilization laws in prior unanimous decisions, but if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that this particular SCOTUS is all too happy to jettison precedent in service to its political goals. If you think that New York’s housing crisis is bad now, think about how things would look in a world where stabilized apartments simply don’t exist.