The New York State Capitol looked grand at sundown, lit up bright against the falling dark and quiet streets. Across from the building, in Albany’s Academy Park, next to a sign proclaiming the “Birthplace of Modern Electricity,” a small encampment was growing, air mattresses being inflated, sleeping bags unrolled. It was Monday evening, June 22.
Waving handwritten signs saying “Cuomoville,” the campers were setting up a protest against what they saw as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s failure to keep his promises on rent-law reform. They were tenants and activists—members of New York Communities for Change, the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Make the Road New York—and they had trekked all the way from New York City’s poorer outer boroughs, mostly, from rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights, and Bushwick in Brooklyn and from the Bronx. Some of them had already slept out on the Manhattan streets in front of Cuomo’s New York City office last week, after the regulations that keep about a million apartments relatively affordable for working-class tenants expired. Now they were doing it again, spending a night under the Albany stars in an effort to keep the pressure on the governor to secure protections for city renters.
“The last time when Mr. Cuomo was running for election, he had a mantra that he would fix this and he was going to see about the rent regulations,” Reynold James, a retiree and Crown Heights resident, told me. “He ain’t doing nothing. I’m very worried—very, very, very worried—because, if they keep rent this high, I will not be able to live where I’m living!”
Many New Yorkers are in James’s position. About half of New York’s 2 million rental apartments are rent-stabilized, meaning that the landlord can only increase the rent on tenants by a set percentage each year. For a city where around 1.7 million people live below the official federal policy threshold, rent regulation is often the only way they can hang on. The percentage is decided by the city Rent Guidelines Board, appointed by the mayor, but the rent laws are decided in Albany, where state legislators from outside of the city have little incentive to ensure a stable environment for renters outside their jurisdiction, and often get big donations from developers in order to do just the opposite. Even the Rent Guidelines Board is not wholly sympathetic to tenants; last year, despite calls from Mayor Bill de Blasio for a rent freeze, it still voted for a 1 percent increase. De Blasio rode outrage over New York’s staggering inequality into office, but Albany continues to be where progressive policies go to die.