Near Daily Protests Tenants Demand End Widespread Rent-Stabilized Apartment Vacancies

Near Daily Protests Tenants Demand End Widespread Rent-Stabilized Apartment Vacancies

The pressure is on to open the city’s vacant apartments.

Since THE CITY reported that nearly 89,000 rent-stabilized apartments were vacant last year in New York City, tenant advocates and lawmakers have increased their calls for solutions as the city’s housing crisis deepens.

Within the last five days alone, tenant groups took to the streets three times, calling for an end to so-called “warehousing.”

In Crown Heights, tenants who have been on rent strike for a year at a violation-ridden building at 1392 Sterling Place say their landlord has kept 20% of the units vacant — some for a decade — and prevented anyone from moving into those empty apartments.

They say the owner, Iris Management, also ignored an elderly tenant’s request to move from a fourth-floor unit to a vacant second-floor unit because she has difficulty climbing stairs.

“Where has our rent money gone for years?” said Michelle Stamp, a tenant who joined the protest Sunday and whose family has lived in the building for six decades. “Clearly not to any upkeep in the building.”

The building currently has 16 unresolved housing code violations for water leaks, 13 for mice infestation, and eight for lead-based paint, according to property records. 

On Halloween, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined tenants on E. 14th St. in Manhattan where they have been fighting Liberty Ventures, a landlord they believe is deliberately leaving apartments empty and in disrepair to circumvent existing rent laws.

Williams referred to these vacancies as “zombie units” and called for warehousing to end.

“New York faces the joint crisis of homelessness and affordability,” said Sue Susman, a tenant leader for the Coalition to End Apartment Warehousing, claiming that landlords are holding homes off the market “in a gamble that Albany would weaken tenant protections.” 

Landlord groups have contended that rent reforms the state legislature passed in 2019 make renting out apartments a money-losing proposition and have sought to roll back changes, while also suing in federal court to abolish rent regulation entirely. 

Warehouse No More

On Thursday, the Coalition to End Apartment Warehousing, alongside City Council members including Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), Pierina Sanchez (D-The Bronx) and Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), took the fight to City Hall’s steps in a rally. 

Attended by about 100 tenant organizers and advocates, with speeches and chants in English and Spanish, the rally demanded action from lawmakers to open up vacant apartments. 

“You can make money on rent-stabilized units, don’t tell me otherwise,” Brewer said at the rally, quoting THE CITY’s previous reporting on a Rent Guidelines Board study. That study showed the typical apartment in a rent-stabilized building still yielded a net income of $6,500 per year—$5,300 in 100% stabilized buildings—during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates say apartments should not sit empty in the midst of a housing crisis. What’s the solution, in their view? They offered some options.

Rivera introduced the “Safe Housing, Strong Communities” legislative package in April. The package includes Intro 195, a Council bill requiring annual registration of vacant apartments — including rent-stabilized ones — with a mandate to city agencies to inspect no fewer than 15% of all vacant units for potential violations of state and local laws.

Rivera also introduced a resolution Thursday in support of Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal’s bill, A5988, which would revoke tax benefits for landlords who hold stabilized homes vacant and potentially attach a filing cost to any registration within a vacancy database. 

A 1989 decision from New York’s highest court may mean that landlords cannot be fined for vacancies in their buildings. However, according to Edward Amador, director of communications for Rivera, the bill is still being worked on and Rivera “supports the intent of a bill … that disincentivizes the practice” of warehousing. 

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), who joined the weekend protest in Crown Heights, touted the Tenant Opportunity Purchase Act, a state bill he introduced that would give low-income tenants priority purchasing rights if their building is put on the market. 

Tenants on Sterling Place in Crown Heights rally against apartment warehousing and unsafe building conditions, Oct. 30, 2022.

Among those advocating for the bill is Yvette Stamp, Michelle’s sister and fellow tenant at 1392 Sterling Place. “We are human beings, and we deserve a say in our housing and control over where we live,” she said. 

At the rally Monday, public advocate Williams pointed to a number of possible fixes. He said the city needs legislation to register and document vacancies, contends landlords should be penalized for holding empty apartments, and says the city should “explore options to acquire these units before more zombie units further terrorize our streets.”

Leaders of property owner groups say progress is not possible until Albany reworks the 2019 laws to make it worthwhile for landlords to renovate and market empty units. The 2019 changes to the rent laws abolished a 20% rent increase when rent-stabilized apartments become vacant and limited how much landlords could pass along the costs of renovations to tenants.

“Our proposal for a vacancy reset would bring tens of thousands of units back online within months,” said Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program. CHIP proposes again allowing a boost on rents in stabilized apartments once a tenant leaves. 

Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the statewide tenant advocacy group Housing Justice for All, says that “there are enough tools to address the problem already out there” to financially assist landlords who need funds to repair old buildings. She cited the Landlord Ambassador Program — which provides vacant unit repair assistance and low-interest financing for free to landlords of multifamily buildings.

The actual number of stabilized homes in need of the kinds of renovations CHIP describes remains unknown. 

Michael Johnson, a spokesperson for CHIP, is calling on the state agency that administers rent stabilization to provide more detailed numbers on vacancies — including how many are higher-rent apartments tied to a development tax abatement program known as 421-a.

“We want DHCR to come out and show us the data” on which apartments are vacant, said Johnson, “and the rents for these apartments.”

Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues to escalate.

Rents are going up. Compared to pre-pandemic prices, median rents for one-bedroom units on the market rose 20% to $3,267, and for two-bedroom units rose 27% to $3,804.

Last Friday, dozens of tenant activists protested outside Brooklyn Housing Court as eviction case filings reached their highest levels since 2020. Less than 10% of tenants facing an eviction received the free legal representation they’re entitled to last month, THE CITY previously reported. 

Updated November 4th, 2022: The story has been updated to reflect more precise data on net operating income for rent stabilized property owners.