The Ghost of Anthony Weiner’s Rent-Stabilized Past (UPDATED)

Why No Tenant Should Vote for Anthony Weiner,” read the headline in May’s issue of Metropolitan Council on Housing. The op-ed, written by tenant advocate Michael McKee of the Tenants PAC, highlights a 1994 flip-flop by the then-councilman on rent stabilization–a term that has slowly evaporated from Big Apple real estate talk in the modern age. The vote cast by Weiner had angered the tenant community at the time and, now that he’s running for City Hall, has only fostered more backlash. And, in a display of how utterly dismal the New York City housing market truly is, it’s one of the first times the issue that should be a top priority has made an appearance in this election cycle.

In 1994, as the age of municipal and New Democrat deregulation trickled down from Washington to New York, Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. was hard at work pulling together supporters and donations for a potential mayoral bid; of course, one of these hopeful bastions of immense wealth came from Big Development. He proposed (and would later pass) a bill that would enact vacancy deregulation (or Decontrol), which McKee pointed to as the beginning of the decline for rent-stabilized apartments in New York.

Under the law, when an apartment became vacant, a landlord could tack on an interest and add thousands of dollars in improvements to bump up what was a rent-stabilized apartment past the $2,000 threshold (now $2,500). Once over, that apartment falls victim to the market, allowing the landlord to charge whatever the hell he or she wants, and begins to absorb the worst of the worst Craigslist ad descriptions (“LUX,” “2BDR,” “LOTS OF ROOM,” etc.)–all of this without the oversight of a state housing agency. McKee provides formulaic demonstration here:

For example, a rent-stabilized apartment renting for $1,000 per month becomes vacant. The moment the unit turns over the legal rent rises to $1,200 because of the statutory vacancy bonus of 20 percent–a bonus, not requiring any work to be done. The landlord then spends $32,000 on improvements (new appliances, granite countertops, whatever) and the legal rent rises to $2,000 per month, as the landlord can impose a monthly rent increase equal to 1/40th of the amount spent on improvements ($32,000 รท 40 = $800). The legal stabilized rent is now $2,000 per month, the apartment is permanently deregulated, and there is no limit on how much the landlord can charge.

At the time of the bill’s passage, Anthony Weiner had just entered his second year as the youngest councilman in the city’s history, hailing from Park Slope, Brooklyn. He had won support from the tenant advocacy community–a usual ally of the Democratic base–by promising to vote against deregulation attempts. Hence McKee’s frustration: When the vote came in at 28-18, establishing vacancy deregulation as the rule of law, Weiner found himself on the opposite side of the aisle from a promise he had made only months before. It was reported later that Vallone had promised favors in return for the necessary votes.

Then, Weiner argued that the bill would ultimately help tenants because the rich would not have rent-stabilized apartments–a position that, according to the Post, he still holds now as a mayoral candidate. It’s a platform that came from another provision in the bill, allowing for deregulation based on income. So, instead of vacancy, a landlord could deregulate an apartment if the person’s income was over $175,000 two years in a row (now $200,000); such income-earners could totally afford an apartment at market rate.

However, this requires an order from the state housing agency. With deregulation pegged to vacancy for the less-well-off, the landlord is in control; with deregulation pegged to income for the more-well-off, you have government protection. That makes a whole lot of sense.

This would explain the following numbers. In between 1994 and 2012, approximately 400,000 apartments were deregulated due to vacancy; for income, that number was a little over 5,000. So Weiner’s “protect the tenants” defense looks great on paper, but, as reality shows, it hasn’t matched up too well. For housing advocates like McKee, that’s unforgivable:

“Unlike many council members who argued that the bill was not particularly harmful, Weiner told us emphatically that he would definitely vote against deregulation,” McKee tells the Voice. “He seemed to grasp what the bill really would mean, unlike many council members who were clueless, who only understood what Vallone and RSA lobbyists told them. That made his sellout even more galling.

“He might have been the only sellout who actually understood why the bill would be detrimental to the rental housing situation,” McKee continues. “That is why his continued justification for his vote, that ‘rich people do not deserve to live in a rent-regulated apartment,’ is so hypocritical.”

In a response to the Voice from his campaign, Weiner once again defended his 1994 vote for deregulation by income. “It undermines confidence in rent regulation when wealthier individuals live in residences that are intended to be for those in the middle class or struggling to make it,” he said.

He also gave us a preview of his platform on the issue: “I’m a strong supporter of rent control and I believe that rents are far outstripping the ability to pay for many in the middle class and those struggling to make it. We need a cooling off period on further rent increases for at least a year.”

BRent control’s utmost significance in the upcoming mayoral election should be noted. As we all know too well by now, New York City is becoming wildly unaffordable. Manhattan’s average rent for one person is now around $3,000, an all-time high for a borough at the top of the Most Expensive Places in the Country to Live list, with no-longer-cheap Brooklyn in second place. Homelessness is at Great Depression levels, half of the city is more or less living in poverty, and we’re only just now getting an election-related story that has to do with the unbelievably high living standards in New York.

Weiner, Quinn, and the rest of the Democratic roster continue to promise a return of the middle class in the city, with plans for more public housing and the like. Joe Lhota and his fellow Republicans have, too, just with a bit more of a return-to-Giuliani kick. But none of the candidates have yet to tell us how or when we can stop saying to our friends in other cities, “Yeah, we get it: Everywhere else besides New York is cheaper.” Or when we’ll stop seeing eyebrows raise when we tell family members that we’re paying four figures a month for a tiny one-bedroom.

McKee’s group is sending a questionnaire to each candidate in the race and should reach an endorsement sometime in July. As New Yorkers who all find ourselves in this financially sinking boat, we await their responses. And so does Jimmy McMillan.

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