DHCR Trying to Gut Tenant Protections;
Outrage Slows the Tide

By Dave Powell

On April 5th, a small and little known message went out in the New York State Register: The Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) announced it would amend the state's Rent Stabilization Code, as it had hinted it would 9 months earlier. On the surface, the announcement seemed innocent enough. After all, the code had not been "adjusted" to match up with the major changes in the law resulting from the Rent Regulation "Reform" Act of 1997. But on the surface is exactly where the innocence of the gesture began and ended.

On further inquiry, a group of tenant attorneys discovered that the "adjustments" in question were actually 150 pages worth of major code changes. According to the tenant attorneys (an ad-hoc team of legal services lawyers, lawyers from private tenant firms and tenant advocates), the changes go way beyond the anti-tenant measures passed in 1997. The DHCR is using the '97 changes as a pretext for attempting to regulate areas over which it has previously had no jurisdiction.

DHCR was also apparently at no loss for sleazy tactics in sneaking the measures past an unsuspecting public. As is required by both the Rent Stabilization Code and the Administrative Procedure Act, a hearing was scheduled to solicit testimony from the over 2 million tenants who stand to be affected. But in classic DHCR style the "public" hearing, which took place at Borough of Manhattan Community College on May 25th, appears to have been designed for obscurity. The DHCR made little to no attempt to alert the public of this hearing, and managed very cleverly to schedule it 2 days after "Tenant Lobby Day" and three weeks before the Rent Guidelines Board hearing. With such short notice and ominous scheduling, tenant attendance was destined to be dismal - a fact which wasn't lost on DHCR Executive Assistant Michael Berrios. One BMCC faculty member reports that while booking the room at the college, Berrios let it be known that he expected the hearing to yield a "low turn-out."

Though their numbers were small, a core group of tenants and their allies showed up to register their outrage to the 6 member hearing panel of DHCR officials. Senator Tom Duane and Councilman Stanley Michels both weighed in against the changes as did representatives from the offices of Assembly Members Glick, Stringer, and Council Member Christine Quinn. All the usual suspects from the world of tenant advocacy and activism blasted way, and a surprising number of faculty, staff and students from BMCC, also gave tenant testimony.

But perhaps the most articulate and scathing indictment of the agency's proposed changes came from Ralph Carbone: president of DC 37, local 1359, which represents DHCR employees. Carbone, himself a DHCR employee of 16 years, slammed the agency's convoluted methods of revision, before addressing the changes point by point:

"...The process utilized appears deliberately designed to confuse and obfuscate...the code as it currently exists is complicated and complex enough - the agency performed a gross disservice to the public by, in effect, attempting to bury the very pro-landlord amendments to this revised code."

A common theme echoed in nearly all the tenant testimonies was anger over the lack of notice of the hearing and lack of details on the substance of the changes. They weren't on the DHCR web-site until the day of the hearing, and copies were not available during the hearing (though the DHCR offered to mail them out to tenants at a later date!).

This contrasted sharply with landlord advocates, who showed up in relatively high numbers to praise the changes. An article in the 5/28/00 NY Times quoted Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, as saying "For both owners and tenants, this codification is an extremely valuable and useful process". The fact that the leading landlord group gave such quick approval to 150 pages of DHCR legalese, feeds speculation by tenant advocates of foul play.

Pataki's Legacy: Landlord Henchman at DHCR
To many who have watched the DHCR's "devolution" in recent years, the credit for this latest attack on tenant rights rests with one man: George Elmer Pataki. "In the past, under the Democrats, DHCR operated as an agency that took rent regulations seriously, but tried not to enforce it so much as to drive away landlord campaign contributions," says Met Council board member Bill Rowan, a tenant advocate and assistant to the tenant attorneys. "After Pataki became Governor in 1995, the pro-business (landlord) ideology changed the landscape: DHCR was changed first in its staffing. Pro-landlord attorneys and appointees replaced pro-tenant ones. Often overlooked is that rent examiners and attorneys who served successfully in their jobs under the Democrats were removed. Only then could Pataki control the agency. Incompetence was rewarded. Lack of knowledge of the laws became a virtue, especially if you were willing to function as the Pataki people wanted you to."

Next steps: Tenants must move to defeat changes
Tenant attorneys will be filing lawsuits to stop the proposed DHCR changes to the Rent Stabilization Code. In the meantime, it is extremely important that tenants register their opposition with both DHCR and the governor. Originally DHCR had scheduled to end the "public comment period"on May 30. However, during the last week of May, tenants managed to show a swell of opposition to the changes, including a phone and e-mail "blitz" of DHCR and Pataki, initiated by Met Council. The "public comment period" has since been extended to July 12. After this point, DHCR will claim to have sufficiently heard public opinion and decide on whether or not to proceed with their proposed changes.

(Reprinted from the June issue of Tenant, published monthly by the Met Council on Housing. Subscription to Tenant comes free with a membership to Met Council. For membership info, contact Met Council.)