State leaders OK new rental protections for pricey NYC

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — More than one million apartment dwellers in and around New York City are getting new protections against big rent increases under a landmark tenants' rights bill signed into law Friday.

The measure, which passed the Democrat-controlled Senate and Assembly Friday afternoon and was immediately signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, strengthens the existing rent stabilization and rent control rules that govern rental increases and evictions in many older, multiunit apartments.

It also makes the rules permanent, eliminating the need for leaders in Albany to regularly renew the law, which was set to expire Saturday.

Lawmakers voted to extend several protections throughout the state, including one prohibiting security deposits of more than one month's rent. The law will also authorize cities throughout the state to opt into rent stabilization rules.

The law is a big victory for tenants, housing advocates and many progressive groups that say high rents in New York City are forcing out many lower and middle-class residents. It's also a stunning defeat for the New York City real estate industry, long one of the most politically powerful forces in the state Capitol.

"Today the tenants will win," said Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, who was raised in a rent stabilized apartment. "We have been losing in this building for decades, but today, the tenants will win."

Landlords have warned that apartments may fall into disrepair if owners aren't allowed to raise the rent high enough to cover the cost of improvements. The Partnership for New York City, a leading business advocacy organization, said the changes could backfire.

"This rent reform package will inevitably lead to the same loss of decent, middle-class housing that we experienced in the 1970s and 1980s," the group said in a statement. "It is not enough to maintain affordability if it means tenants are living in terrible conditions."

Tenants and advocates argue that high rents are a leading cause of income inequality in the nation's largest city, leading to the elimination of affordable housing and turning many neighborhoods into the reserve of the well-heeled.

"It's destroying New York City, destroying its diversity, which is its beauty," said Corine Ombongo-Golden, a teacher who has lived in a rent stabilized apartment in the Bronx for 17 years.

The rent stabilization and control laws were written decades ago to preserve affordable housing amid the post-war boom. Since then, the rules have slowly been eroded and thousands of units have been taken out of stabilization.

The changes approved Friday will eliminate a landlord's ability to take a unit out of the system based on a tenant's income and further restrict landlords' abilities to justify rent increases through improvements and upgrades.

Passage was made possible last fall when Democrats took control of the state Senate, giving them a lock on power. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-the Bronx, and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins worked out the deal, without much input from Cuomo, who left the negotiations to lawmakers.

"I'm confident the measure passed today is the strongest possible set of reforms that the Legislature was able to pass," Cuomo said in a statement announcing his signature. He called the law "a major step forward for tenants across New York.

Stewart-Cousins, who grew up in public housing and is the first African American woman to lead a legislative chamber in New York, said that after decades of siding with the landlords, Albany is now listening to the tenants.

"What we're doing today says 'we get it,'" she said.