Call it the second Battle of Brooklyn.
Though rent regulations expired at midnight for residents across the state, it was a group of vocal Brooklyn tenants and affordable housing advocates that took a leading role this week in the fight to extend and strengthen existing tenant protections.
"This is an issue that affects Brooklyn more than other places," said Michelle Taglia, a resident of a market-rate unit in Fort Greene rallying on behalf of her rent regulated neighbors in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in Midtown Wednesday. "It's there that rents seem to be rising the fastest."
In demonstrations at the State Capitol on Tuesday and at Cuomo's office yesterday, renters from across Brooklyn and the rest of the city sought to sway ongoing negotiations between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Brooklyn, Sen. Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau, and Cuomo.
Reached just before Wednesday, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, D-Prospect Heights, said that both sides of the rent regulation reform debate were still far away from each other — but vowed that legislators would stay in Albany until they hammered out a deal to protect tenants.
"The GOP senate majority does not want to do anything but extend the law at best," Jeffries said. "We are determined that millions of rent regulated tenants have the protection they deserve and we will not leave Albany without achieving that objective."
Rent regulatory laws last expired for a five-day period in 1997. It was unclear what effect, if any, the current lapse would have on renters throughout the state.
However, for tenants like Mona of Park Slope at Wednesday's rally, the stakes still couldn't be higher.
"I have a rent stabilized apartment, which allows me to spend money in the neighborhood," said Mona, who withheld her last name because of fears of retribution by her landlord. "If my rent gets too high, I'll have to move."
And in a cruel twist of fate, at least one housing advocate saw the fight as one of preserving the character of the neighborhoods that made them so attractive to higher-income tenants — and profit-hungry landlords — in the first place.
"We hope to keep the community vibrant by keeping long-term residents in the community... and one thing that's very important for what we're doing is making sure that the rent laws are strengthened and renewed," said Elana Shneyer, director of organizing for the . "The way the laws are right now we're seeing a huge turnover in our community, with long-term residents forced out because landlords think they can get higher rents."
However, an overhaul of one of the chief culprits of that turnover, vacancy decontrol — a process in which rent-controlled or stabilized units are converted into market-rate apartments — seemed to be off the table during current negotiations in Albany.
"The fight to repeal vacancy decontrol lives on," Jeffries said.
Since the provision was passed in 1997, more than 300,000 rent-regulated or controlled apartments have been converted to market-rate units, according to Shneyer at PACC.
The process of vacancy decontrol in neighborhoods like Clinton Hill seems to have accelerated in recent years, with one apartment building at 266 Washington Ave. going from close to 100 percent rent-stabilized to 40 percent market rate in just five years time.
According to Bob Foster, president of the 266 Washington Ave. Tenants Association, the conversions began once Colorado-based real estate investment firm The Dermot Company bought the building, along with several others in the neighborhood, in 2006.
"Shortly after, people in rent-stabilized units got more scrutiny from the landlord," Foster said. "One woman had to go to court to prove she lived in her unit... and won."
In historically African-American neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, the issue of rent regulatory reform held a different kind of significance.
"This morning I heard a news story about the decrease of black families in Brooklyn, and the one million increase of residents in North Carolina since the census in 2000," said Michael Bailey, a community organizer with Bridge Street Development Corp. in Bed-Stuy. "The financial squeeze may lead to a migration of working class people to states with a better promise of quality of life."
Cleon Alert contributed reporting to this story.