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Harlem Tenants Fight to Strengthen Rent Laws

By Jeff Mays | May 6, 2011 2:12pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Tywanna and Alan Ellerbe have lived in Harlem for 26 years, long enough to see the neighborhood change drastically, and long enough to be in danger of being priced out of their rent regulated apartment.

After being laid off of work for 6 1/2 months and 2 1/2 years respectively, the 45-year-old social worker and 46-year-old security officer fear that if rent regulations are allowed to expire next month, they will have to leave their Central Harlem apartment.

"We were here before Starbucks and before Old Navy, before yellow cabs came up here," said Tywanna Ellerbe who said they are already facing a rent increase for the installation of a new boiler.

"And we are not the only couple this has happened to. There are 20 people in our circle in the same situation," added Alan Ellerbe.

The Ellerbes joined more than 200 people in Harlem Thursday night at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Center on West 135th Street for a meeting on ways to urge the legislature to reinstate rent regulation laws, which are set to expire on June 15. By law, the state's laws on rent regulation guidelines have to be re-approved by the legislature every several years, and the law has come up for renewal most recently in 2003, 1997, and 1993.

About 1.1 million city apartments are affected by the laws that determine the amount of the rent increase landlords can charge their tenants.

"We want the governor to be aware of how rent laws will affect communities of color," said Delsenia Glover, president of the "Gang of Six" an alliance of residents from Lenox Terrace, Riverton, and Savoy Park, three of the largest private apartment complexes in Harlem, who organized the meeting.

"We've already lost 300,000 apartments to vacancy decontrol and if this continues there will be no rent regulated apartments in 15 years and New York will be for the rich and very rich," Glover added.

State Sen. Bill Perkins told attendees that applying pressure to Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the only way they are going to get the rent regulations extended and strengthened. Cuomo has said he supports increasing rent protections but has yet to commit to a specific proposal or eliminating vacancy decontrol which allows landlords to move apartments from regulation once the rent reaches $2,000.

"My constituents should not be sitting in trepidation worrying whether they will have a place to live come June. I am putting the responsibility on (Gov. Cuomo) to deliver. He has the bully pulpit and the authority," Perkins said. "But we have to pressure him."

Still, some attendees wondered whether protests, calling the governor and mailing cards was enough.

Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens said a group of City Council members are traveling to Albany on May 24 to push for rent law renewals and strengthening.

Dickens said the group plans to target upstate legislators who are not in favor of the rent laws. The real push, she said, should be for home rule so the city does not have to rely on the entire state to decide what is essentially a local issue.

Michael McKee of the Real Rent Reform Campaign said that while he was optimistic that rent laws would be renewed, the push should be to strengthen the laws. The governor is the only one who can push rent changes through at this point, he added.

"This is a fight to the death," McKee said. "You see what's happening in this neighborhood. You know people who are pushed out and how those apartments become market rate and those new tenants have no protection."

Tywanna and Alan Ellerbe hope they don't fall into that category.

"We need to hold our public officials more accountable and address these issues before they turn into dire problems," Alan Ellerbe said.