New York is in a housing crisis, exacerbated by spiraling rents that outpace residents’ incomes. Even after Albany dramatically strengthened our rent laws last year, thousands of New Yorkers continue to be deprived of their housing rights for two reasons. Residents either aren’t aware of the protections afforded to them, and government agencies designed to protect tenants fail to complete their mission.
This must be addressed locally because past state-level efforts to protect renters have consistently fallen short. In 2012 Governor Cuomo created the Tenant Protection Unit (TPU), granting it a sweeping mandate to reduce predatory renting practices through audits, investigations and tenant rights education workshops. But due to underfunding and a lack of political will, the TPU has not lived up to its promise, leaving the vast majority of rent law violators unaccountable.
Now, the sweeping rent laws passed last year only make enforcement even more critical. With MCIs, vacancy bonuses, and vacancy decontrol eliminated, unethical landlords will work even harder to circumvent the law. Bad actors have ignored renter protections for generations, so why should we now expect them to report rent stabilized units and follow new laws limiting security deposits and brokers fees?
These unscrupulous landlords, emboldened in the past by weak enforcement, have long exacerbated gentrification in my home of Flatbush, clearly targeting seniors and people of color for displacement. Numerous tenants in our community still believe they are vulnerable to predatory practices because our government has failed to inform them of their new protections.
Since tenants cannot count on the State Government to enforce these laws, the City must step up. I believe that a robust enforcement system requires three prongs: educating tenants, engaging communities, and holding bad landlords accountable. As a member of City Council, I will push for the creation of a permanent NYC Tenant Protection Unit within the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The NYC Tenant Protection Unit would be a revolutionary new type of city agency; a new nexus of activist leaders, investigators, community stakeholders, local non-profits and civil servants, all collaborating and fully equipped with the resources to protect every tenant in New York City.
The NYC Tenant Protection Unit’s first priority must be education and community engagement, achieved by directing resources to local non-profits with the institutional knowledge, legal acumen and community relationships required to engage New York’s diverse communities. In neighborhoods like Kensington and Flatbush, culturally competent nonprofits would engage tenants in their spoken languages including Urdu, Haitian-Creole and Spanish. Our outreach would be multifaceted and bring religious institutions, civic organizations and community businesses together to directly connect tenants to resources such as legal counsel.
Finally, the unit must be empowered with a real budget and real oversight power. The agency must conduct full reviews of buildings in communities on the frontline of gentrification. It must also maintain and publicize an active database of rent-regulated units, a first in New York City. Similar to the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, we need an agency that will proactively investigate and prosecute landlords who break the law. With the NYC Tenant Protection Unit, tenants will be freed from the burden of holding landlords accountable, and landlords will face meaningful legal pressure and consequences.
With the political winds at our backs, New York City Council has a once in a lifetime opportunity to stem the tide of gentrification and meaningfully protect tenants. We must seize that opportunity and fulfill our duty to every tenant, so families no longer have to fear wrongful eviction or illegal rent increases. Progressives throughout the country claim housing is a right; in New York City, it’s time to start treating it like one.
Josue Pierre is a Democratic State Committeeman and candidate for the New York City Council. He worked as a Senior Financial Analyst investing New York City pension funds in affordable housing projects and more recently in Community Affairs as Brooklyn Borough Director at the Office of the New York City Comptroller.