Rent control in New York City originated in wartime limitations on the rights of landlords due to emergency housing shortages. During World War II, the federal Office of Price Administration was given the authority to regulate local rents. After a year of tenant mobilization, a rent freeze was applied to the city in 1943. The provisions of this wartime rent control system continue to form the basis of the city’s rent regulations. Met Council on Housing has fought over the past fifty years to preserve and expand this system, particularly through periods of backlash such as the 1970s and 1990s, when the rent regulation system came under sustained attack from the real estate and landlord lobby groups.
Maximum Base Rent
In 1971 modifications to the rent control system were passed under Mayor John V. Lindsay, introducing rent increases through the Maximum Base Rent system. This system began with an initial across-the-board rent increase of 15%, as well as subsequent yearly increases of 7.5% until rent reached a state-determined maximum level. This legislation affected 1.3 million apartments in New York City. Met Council on Housing organized a rent strike campaign, which failed to gain citywide momentum, but did win specific concessions in forty striking buildings.
Home Rule and Vacancy Decontrol
Beginning in 1962, the policy of “home rule” allowed New York City to have control over housing legislation for the city. However, by 1972 Governor Nelson Rockefeller reversed this policy with the Urstadt Law, placing the responsibility for rent legislation in the hands of state politicians in Albany. This put tenants in NYC at a dramatic disadvantage when pursuing rent control legislation. At the same time, New York State legislature passed a second bill, introducing “vacancy decontrol” which removed rent regulations from apartments in New York City as tenants vacated their apartments. Met Council on Housing, along with organizations such as the East Harlem Tenants’ Council, called for a citywide rent strike in response to the Urstadt Law and vacancy decontrol.
Emergency Tenant Protection Act
After significant set backs like Maximum Base Rent, the reversal of home rule and vacancy decontrol, Met Council on Housing fought to maintain the remnants of the rent regulation system. An upswing in tenant organizing led to the passage of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act in 1974, which extended rent stabilization to most of the apartments affected by vacancy decontrol. Although the legislation was imperfect, it was vital for retaining the surviving rent regulations. Met Council on Housing collaborated with New York State Tenants Legislative Coalition to defend and extend the protections of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act throughout the 1970s.
Throughout the late 1970s, Met Council on Housing collaborated with tenant organizations from across the state under the umbrella of the Coalition Against Rent Increase Pass-Alongs (CARIP). In 1979 CARIP backed the introduction in Albany of the Flynn-Dearie Bill, an uncompromising revision of existing rent regulations. The Flynn-Dearie bill would have eliminated the distinction between rent controlled and rent stabilized tenants, required landlords to open their books to state auditing before new rent increases were approved, and ensured that low-income seniors and disabled people never paid more than 25% of their income on rent. CARIP and Met Council on Housing lobbied intensely for the Flynn-Dearie bill. However, in 1983 the state assembly passed compromise legislation that excluded many of the provisions critical to Met Council on Housing’s vision for statewide rent control.
The 1997 Rent Wars
With existing rent regulations set to expire in June 1997, the real estate and landlord lobby launched their strongest attempt to destroy tenant protections in New York State since 1971. Tenants responded in great numbers to this threat. Met Council on Housing’s Annual Tenant Lobby Day saw over 7,000 people on the streets of Albany, including representatives from labor, the NAACP, religious organizations and community groups. Over 1,000 tenants gathered outside Governor George Pataki’s Manhattan office the day rent regulations were set to expire. The revival of a radical and diverse tenant movement succeeded in preserving the foundation of the rent regulation system, though tenants suffered a serious defeat. The Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 allowed 20% rent increases on vacant apartments, extended the impact of vacancy decontrol and placed new limitations on the powers of Housing Court.