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Strengthen Rent Regulation Rules Amid Homeless Crisis, Task Force Urges

By Amy Zimmer | June 20, 2017 9:32am
 The Family Homelessness Task Force wants the state strengthen rules to preserve rent stabilized units.
The Family Homelessness Task Force wants the state strengthen rules to preserve rent stabilized units.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

MANHATTAN — The state's outdated rent stabilization rules aren't enough to stamp out the city's soaring homeless crisis — as skyrocketing rent prices let owners drop out of the program once a vacant unit’s price hits $2,700 per month, according to a new report calling attention to the needs of homeless children and their families.

Advocates estimate that 150,000 rent-stabilized units were taken off the rolls in this way between 1994 and 2012 and say the law gives landlords a direct incentive to evict tenants, according to the report released Monday by the Family Homelessness Task Force.

“The city cannot sustain this loss rate of rent-stabilized units in the face of such an acute housing affordability crisis,” the report stated.

More than 27,000 children — almost half of whom were under the age of 6 — slept in a city shelter in April, according to the report, which noted that shelter life can destabilize families and lead to more problems with physical and mental health.

The leading driver of homelessness are eviction and domestic violence, with a shortage of affordable housing compounding the problem, according to the report.

Housing advocates in the city have long called on the state to strengthen rent regulations policies, including removing the price threshold at which units can be taken off the rolls, known as vacancy decontrol.

But the new report — from a group convened by Enterprise Community Partners, Citizen’s Committee for Children and New Destiny Housing — adds a sense of urgency to the call for changing the rent regulation system as a way to stanch the record numbers of homeless families. 

Shelters will continue to be strained if the divide between rising rents and stagnating wages continues, the report reads.

Advocates also called on the state to link decisions about the status of preferential rent units — in which landlords charge a tenant lower than what is legally allowed, usually because of what the market can command — to the status of rent stabilized units set by the Rent Guidelines Board. The board opted to freeze rents for one-year leases the past two years.

Preferential rent can be revoked when a lease ends, often leading to a huge rent increase that the tenant cannot pay, advocates warn. This leads to high turnover, with rent increases every time there’s a vacancy — which landlords could use as a way to speed up the rate at which they reach market-rate prices.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made strengthening rent regulation laws the centerpiece of the city’s 2015 legislative agenda in Albany, mayoral spokeswoman Melissa Grace said.

"The top priority was — and continues to be — ending vacancy decontrol, which incentivizes tenant harassment and illegal evictions by landlords seeking to force families out of their own homes," she said. "Working with a broad coalition of elected officials and housing and senior activists, the administration will continue to push for this key reform to state rent laws. It is absolutely vital."

Both the city and state have stepped up efforts to help families at risk of eviction. 

The de Blasio administration has bolstered funding for legal services more than 10-fold to $62 million. Evictions have since dropped by 24 percent, and more than 40,000 New Yorkers were able to stay in their homes in 2015 and 2016, city officials said. The city also passed a plan earlier this year for universal access to counsel in housing court.

The mayor's Tenant Support Unit has also stepped up outreach by knocking on 158,000 doors and making 84,000 calls to tenants who may be facing harassment or in danger of being kicked out of their homes, city officials said.

On the state level, the Tenant Protection Unit, established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has returned more than 60,000 units to rent regulation and recovered nearly $4 million in rent overcharges for tenants. 

Additionally, there’s growing momentum behind Home Stability Support, a state proposal to provide rent supplement for families who are eligible for public assistance and who are facing eviction or homelessness due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions.

Still, more needs to be done to prevent families from ending up homeless, the task force said, including beefing up organizations that help families struggling with housing instability, whether they're after school programs or mental health services and more. 

The typical profile of a homeless family is one headed by a single woman of color, whose average age is 34 with an average of two children. Nearly a third of the household heads are working despite nearly half lacking a high school diploma or high school equivalency degree, according to the report. A quarter of them have an open child welfare case with the Administration for Children’s Services.

With roughly 45 percent families placed in the borough outside of their youngest child's school, many homeless families lose their friends, community and routines on top of losing their possessions and privacy, the report noted.

"It is imperative that New Yorkers come together as a community to address this crisis. This means that government, advocacy groups, service providers, landlords and communities themselves must come together and prioritize the needs of homeless children and their families," the report said.

"The research shows that if we do not do this, we increase the chances that the next generation of New Yorkers will struggle in school and face intergenerational poverty and homelessness, as well as increased health and mental health costs."