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Landlords’ Ad Blitz Targets Tough Crowd: Tenants Rallying for Rent Law Reform

Image from commercial produced by landlords.
Image from commercial produced by landlords.
Photo: Screengrab

Landlords watching their fortunes fade in a changed Albany are waging a big-bucks advertising blitz aimed at winning over a tough crowd: their tenants.

Ads from Taxpayers for an Affordable New York — a coalition of landlord groups that include the Real Estate Board of New York and Rent Stabilization Association — warn that buildings’ management and tenants will both suffer if lawmakers dramatically revamp state rent laws, which expire June 15.

“My dad and I are very hands on and take pride in making sure our tenants have a good home,” says Brooklyn landlord Chris Athineos in one ad that began running on Facebook Wednesday. “But it’s not cheap. Right now the laws make sure we can maintain the building but still keep rents affordable. If Albany gets rid of these laws, we won’t be able to invest in the building the way we do now.”

Taxpayers for an Affordable New York has already spent roughly $700,000 on its campaign calling for “responsible rent reform,” and will likely spend more, a spokeswoman for the coalition told THE CITY.

Four Facebook ads began appearing last week, reaching anywhere between 20,000 and 46,000 people, according to the social media platform. The campaign also includes TV spots in New York City and Albany, as well as mailed cards and digital and print advertising.

The group laid out $5,100 to air a 30-second ad Sunday on WABC-TV, according to records from the Federal Communications Commission.

Albany Shift Bring New Bills

State rent regulations govern rent hikes and lease terms on 966,000 apartments in New York City and tens of thousands more in nearby counties. With the Senate in solidly Democratic Party control for the first time in decades, both the Senate and Assembly are working on bills that could significantly strengthen tenants’ hands and weaken landlords’.

Proposals include measures that would deny landlords the ability to sharply increase rents on apartments and to remove vacated units from regulation once rents pass a dollar threshold.

People-rich and cash-poor, tenants are mobilizing a grassroots campaign. Hundreds of renters from around New York have been flocking to the Capitol weekly “Tenant Tuesday” to shore up support from the legislators.

“The richest developers on Earth are paying for an ad campaign to undermine a grassroots tenant movement across the state,” said Jonathan Westin, the head of New York Communities for Change, a group that advocates for low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

The Specter of NYCHA

Tensions between the landlord and tenant groups pulsed through an Assembly hearing in Manhattan on Thursday.

Joseph Strasburg of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 building owners, appeared resigned to the possibility property owners would lose the power they have had since the 1990s to remove high-rent vacant apartments from regulation, calling it a “done deal.”

More than 150,000 apartments have dropped out of rent regulation since 1994, statistics compiled by the city Rent Guidelines Board show.

Strasburg warned that if rent reforms go too far, the effect would be to “NYCHA-tize” private housing — prompting disinvestment in maintenance.

The effects of eliminating so-called vacancy decontrol won’t be felt for “at least two or three years,” Strasburg told legislators. “The sky isn’t going to fall overnight.” More dire, Strasburg suggested, would be eliminating landlords’ ability to charge tenants over time for updates to their apartments and buildings, such as new appliances and elevators.

Image from commercial featuring Brooklyn landlord Chris Athineos (left).
Image from commercial featuring Brooklyn landlord Chris Athineos (left).

Athineos, who owns nine buildings in Brooklyn that contain 150 apartments, said at a rally before the hearing that landlords need funds to fix aging structures.

“Brownstones, which I own, are 150 years old in Brooklyn. Older buildings require a lot more maintenance and for us to invest in these buildings and create good quality of life condition for our tenants, we need these programs to continue,” he said.

Tenant advocates, some of whom heckled real estate industry representatives at the hearing, disagreed.

Sue Susman, the president of the Central Park Gardens Tenants’ Association, called the provision that lets landlords pass the costs of apartment upgrades on to tenants “too tempting of a scam for most owners to pass up.”

A New-ish Albany

The coalition of landlords is up against a new dynamic in the state Legislature that denies them the clout they held when the Republican Party controlled the Senate.

Already this session, the legislature limited the so-called LLC loophole, which had allowed donors to make virtually limitless campaign contributions through corporate entities and was used heavily by real estate industry interests to secure members’ support.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo backs ending deregulation of high-rent vacant apartments and an end to landlords’ right to sharply increase charges on tenants who received lower, so-called preferential rents on their previous leases. But Cuomo has stopped short of the Assembly’s calls to eliminate landlords’ ability to charge tenants for upgrades, proposing instead to limit the allowances.

Still, tenant advocates may also find their hopes less than fully satisfied.

A far-reaching Senate proposal to extend rent controls to most apartments statewide, limiting increases based on inflation, was excluded from the Assembly speaker’s package. It also got a cool reception on Friday from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I think we have to recognize that we need our buildings kept in good shape for our tenants,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “And that does involve making sure there is viable economics.”

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