Vacancy Decontrol Is Hurting New York’s Immigrant Communities

By Guest Columnist Apr 20, 2009

By Shan Rehman photo credit: Seth Wessler Predatory equity has become an increasingly visible part of New York City’s real estate landscape. Investors buy apartment buildings that house low-to-moderate income tenants at low prices, and then vacate as many units as possible to raise rents and guarantee a higher rate of return on their investment. The methods used to establish these vacancies have typically been insidious, with immigrant tenants more likely to be pressurized and harassed. The Immigrant Housing Collaborative, a coalition of community based organizations serving immigrants across the City, mobilized people at a rally in Queens last Friday to fight these practices. New York City has one of the largest–and most contentious–affordable housing programs in the country. Rent regulation, the largest component of these programs, is the system which allows landlords to raise rents by only a certain set amount every year. Rent regulation also gives tenants in rent regulated apartments important rights, including the right to have their lease renewed and to pass their lease on to certain family members. Since 1997 however, with the enacting of ‘Vacancy Decontrol’, a state law, apartments which become vacant, or in which rents increase to over $2000 no longer fall under the purview of rent regulation. As a result, New York City now loses thousands of affordable apartments every year and has seen a surge in unlawful evictions, tenant harassment and intimidation. Rent regulation is often viewed erroneously by outsiders as an anomaly that has subsidized wealthy native (and mainly white) New Yorkers to unfairly maintain expensive Manhattan apartments at a fraction of their market rents. In reality, a huge number of rent regulated apartments are in immigrant dominated neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, and it is these more vulnerable tenants who are typically pressurized by landlords. The New York State Senate is expected to vote on legislation that would repeal vacancy decontrol in the coming weeks. Since immigrants and people of color are more likely to spend a higher percentage of their incomes on rent, it is important for us to raise our voices in support of this legislation. Events similar to last Friday’s action are being planned in all five boroughs. Shan Rehman works for Chhaya CDC, a non-profit housing justice organization, and a member of the Immigrant Housing Collaborative.