Sen. Pedro Espada announces his bill at City Hall on Feb. 17
A new housing bill introduced by State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr., which proposes to freeze rent increases for close to 300,000 qualifying city households, has riled some housing advocates who say the bill is pro-landlord legislation in disguise.
Espada said his bill would provide relief to rent-stabilized households that make less than $45,000 a year and spend at least a third of their annual income on rent. But many housing advocates say the bill could actually work against tenants and is typical of Espada, who serves as Senate housing chairman but has earned a reputation for being cozy with landlords.
“It does not surprise us that Senator Espada is holding water for the landlords,” said Michael McKee, executive director of Housing Here and Now.
Espada proposes to compensate landlords for the rent freezes by providing them with tax exemptions, which he estimates will cost the city $77 million.
That money would come from property owners who could voluntarily refund tax breaks they’ve received through what’s known as a J-51, a subsidy for landlords who renovate their buildings. In exchange, the buildings must be rent-stabilized.
Critics of Espada's bill say it would largely benefit landlords
Housing advocates say that landlords who think they’ll make more money charging market rate, destabilized rents will opt out of the J-51 program, and huge numbers of tenants—the ones who don’t qualify for Espada’s rent freeze—would see their rents go up.
“He’s going to freeze the rents of some people and strip all the protection of an entire class of other people,” said Mario Mazzoni of the Met Council on Housing. “Somebody whose rent depends on a J-51—they’re going to be out of an apartment.”
Last fall, in a case against Stuyvesant Town owners Tishman Speyer, a state judge declared it was illegal for landlords to hike rents while receiving these tax breaks.
Mckee said Espada’s bill would let landlords like Tishman Speyer, who were illegally deregulating apartments while getting tax benefits, “off the hook” by simply letting them pay back their J-51’s.
Espada defended his bill at a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Feb. 17.
“This isn’t about taking money out of anybody’s pocket, except those rich landlords,” he told reporters.
Those landlords, though, don’t seem to have a problem with the bill, at least according to Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group that represents property owners throughout the city.
“As long as it’s voluntary, we support it,” he said of the J-51 refunds, adding that the group has been happy so far with Espada’s role as Housing chairman, a sentiment that not everyone would agree with.
“After seeing what happened last summer, there is a high amount of skepticism,” said Gitanjali Dadlani, an organizer for the advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors.
What happened then was the infamous State Senate coup, led by Espada, which paralyzed the Senate for a month. The crisis started on June 8—just a day before the Housing Committee was set to review legislation that could have repealed vacancy decontrol, which lets landlords hike rent prices once tenants vacate a rent-stabilized apartment.
The coup, and its effect on this legislation, left a stale taste in the mouth of most housing advocates, some of whom even petitioned unsuccessfully to have Espada removed from his post as housing committee chair.
“He’s been a disaster,” said McKee, of Housing Here and Now. “He bottled up every single pro-tenant bill.”
But to some, like Bronx senior Frances Thomas, Espada’s proposed rent freezes sound like a lifeline in a city that’s become largely unaffordable. Thomas stood on the steps of City Hall to lend her support to Espada at his press conference.
“They have to make the rent lower,” she said.
Thomas pays $951 a month for her apartment on the Grand Concourse, and her rent is scheduled to go up in April.
“I’ll have to pay it,” she said. “But it means I’ll have to eat less.”