New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency, a term defined by the Humanitarian Coalition of large international aid organizations as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people.” New York’s is what aid groups would characterize as a “complex emergency”: man-made and shaped by a combination of forces that have led to a large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes. What makes the crisis especially startling is that New York has the most progressive housing laws in the country and a mayor who has made tenants’ rights and affordable housing a central focus of his administration.
The tide of homelessness is only the most visible symptom. There are at least 61,000 people whose shelter is provided, on any given day, by New York’s Department of Homeless Services.
The system of rent stabilization is another development peculiar to New York, with its history of overpopulated slums, tenant activism, and crusaders for social reform. No other American city provides legal protection to tenants at anywhere near New York’s level. Housing shortages after World Wars I and II, protests (and sometimes riots) against price gouging and substandard conditions, and a huge voting bloc of renters with shared interests have led, over the past hundred years, to an evolving series of state-enforced regulations.
In 1969 rent stabilization was established by the state legislature, covering older buildings, for the most part, with six or more units and a history of tenant leases. Though legislators have tinkered with the laws almost annually ever since—weakening protection during some periods, strengthening them in others—the basic system remains intact today: landlords can increase rents for stabilized apartments only at or below a rate set by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board, all of whose members are appointed by the mayor. In recent years increases have ranged from 3.75 to 4.5 percent for one-year leases. In 2015 and 2016, the Rent Guidelines Board froze rents to provide relief for tenants. Tenants in these apartments are also guaranteed the right to renew their leases.
Currently almost half of the rental apartments in New York City are stabilized—about 990,000 units, with 2.6 million people living in them.
Mayor de Blasio is keenly aware of the pressures bearing down on what, as a candidate in 2013, he called “the other New York”—that vast sector of the city’s population that lost considerable economic ground during the twelve-year mayoralty of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio has tried to blunt the hardships, but he also concedes that the forces responsible for the city’s housing emergency are beyond his control. At a town hall meeting I attended at a Bedford-Stuyvesant elementary school on March 9, the mayor told his worried audience not to “think the city is all-powerful. This is about something called money.” He urged renters to think twice before succumbing to landlords offering to buy them out of their stabilized leases, while tacitly acknowledging that thirty or forty or even fifty thousand dollars for someone accustomed to living week-to-week may be difficult to turn down. People had to figure out for themselves whether their leases and the rights that went with them should be put up for sale. “Sometimes, it’s a personal choice,” he said, with resignation.
The core of de Blasio’s housing plan, announced in 2014, is to “build or preserve” 200,000 affordable rental units throughout the five boroughs by 2024. The preservation part of the plan aims to keep 120,000 units that are already affordable from passing into the unregulated market.
Obviously the situation calls for reform. Most crucial would be to eliminate the point—currently $2,700 per month—at which rent-stabilized apartments revert to market rates. History shows that as long as landlords have a path to the unregulated market, they’ll find a way to reach it. A 3 percent increase, say, from the Rent Guidelines Board would raise a rent of $2,700 per month to $2,781, still a manageable amount for a family of three with an income of $100,000, precisely the group that many of de Blasio’s new affordable units are aimed at. But most rent-stabilized tenants pay much less than that: of the 990,000 regulated apartments, 471,694 have rents of $1,000–$1,499; an additional 120,076 rent for $800–$999. The vast majority of these cheaper apartments are in New York’s poorest neighborhoods where incomes are well below the city’s average. If rent-stabilized apartments were required to stay in the system, no matter their cost, the outsize financial reward that landlords now reap for driving poorer tenants out of their homes would disappear.