Non-Rent Protections Under Rent Control and Rent Stabilization

By Robert A. Cinque
New York Law Journal

At the crux of the current rent-control debate are three statutes that the state Legislature has passed, at various times, delegating to New York City and other municipalities the authority to regulate rents. These statutes, the Emergency Housing Rent Control Act (McKinney's Uncons. secs. 8581 et seq.), the Local Emergency Housing Rent Control Act (McKinney's Uncons. secs. 8601 et seq.), and the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (McKinney's Uncons. secs. 8621 et seq.), are all temporary measures that expire June 15, 1997.

These statutes all acknowledge, in their legislative findings, the existence of a housing emergency and the need for regulation of the housing market. Unless these statutes are renewed, no municipality in New York State will have authorization to regulate rents.

The New York City Council, under these statutes, enacted the Rent and Rehabilitation Law (NYC Admin. Code secs. 26-401 et seq.), the Rent Stabilization Law (NYC Admin. Code secs. 26-501 et seq.), the Rent and Eviction Regulations for rent-controlled units (9 N.Y.C.R.R. secs. 2200 et seq.), and the Rent Stabilization Code (9 N.Y.C.R.R. secs. 2520 et seq.).

While much of the public discussion has focused on whether it is fair to regulate the rents landlords can charge for apartments, the scope of these statutes and regulations goes beyond setting rents for regulated apartments. They also provide other protections for tenants in order to "forestall profiteering, speculation and other disruptive practices." McKinney's Uncons. secs. 8581, 8602, 8622.

Section 2523.5 of the Rent Stabilization Code, for example, requires that landlords offer tenants a renewal lease between 150 and 120 days before the current lease expires. A landlord may refuse to do so only under the following circumstances: a) when he or she wishes to use the apartment for his or her own occupancy or for occupancy by an immediate family member, b) recovery by a not-for-profit institution, or c) where the apartment is not the tenant's primary residence. 9 N.Y.C.R.R. sec. 2524.4. A tenant need not pay any increase in rent until a lease is offered. 9 N.Y.C.R.R. sec. 2523.5(d) (if landlord fails to offer renewal lease, "tenant shall continue to have the same rights as if the existing lease were still in effect.")

The Rent Stabilization Code also protects tenants against evictions without cause. Section 2524.1(b) of the Code prohibits landlords from evicting tenants in retaliation for the tenants' exercising of their rights under the Code or other statutes. Section 2524.3(b) of the Rent Stabilization Code amplifies the thrust of 2524.1(b), specifically stating that "[t]he exercise by a tenant of any rights pursuant to any law or regulation relating to occupancy of a housing accommodation . . . shall not be deemed a ground for eviction . . . ."

Section 2524.3 sets forth the grounds on which a lease termination may be based: a violation of a substantial obligation of the lease that a tenant has failed to cure after written notice; causing or permitting a nuisance in the apartment or building; substantially damaging the apartment or building with malice or gross negligence; interfering with the comfort or safety of the landlord or other tenants; using an apartment for illegal or immoral purposes; and unreasonably refusing a landlord access for making repairs. Summary proceedings for non-payment of rent are regulated by Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law sec. 711(2).

The rent-regulation statutes that are about to expire also contain protections for senior citizens, specifically the Senior Citizens' Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE). Real Property Tax Law sec. 467-b authorizes municipalities to grant property tax abatements to landlords in exchange for exempting senior citizens who meet certain criteria from rent increases. In New York City, these exemptions are codified in Admin. Code secs. 26-405, 26-406, 26-509 and 26-601 et seq. Under these statutes, which apply to rent-controlled, rent-stabilized, Mitchell-Lama and other state-subsidized housing, senior citizens whose household income is below an amount set by statute cannot have their rent increased above one-third of their household income.

The rent laws that are about to expire offer significant protections for tenants against unreasonable evictions. In a non-regulated apartment, by comparison, a landlord may refuse to renew a lease without offering a reason. A landlord's right to terminate a non-regulated lease in New York City is controlled by the terms of the lease and RPAPL sec. 711. Under this statute, a landlord may evict upon proof that a tenant is "objectionable" (e.g., committing a nuisance), has filed for bankruptcy, has defaulted in the payment of rent, is using the apartment for illegal purposes (also addressed in the "bawdy-house law," RPAPL sec. 715), or has removed a smoke detector from the apartment.

Meanwhile, the debate in Albany continues. Those urging that the laws be renewed say that the present statutes' protections against unreasonable evictions help to counteract the advantage in bargaining power that landlords enjoy where demand for apartments exceeds supply. Opponents of rent control say the laws help but a lucky few while distorting the markets for everyone else. In any event, it is important for lawyers practicing in New York to understand the nature of today's rent laws, because only then can one appraciate all that is at stake in the current legislative debate.

Robert A. Cinque is a staff attorney for District Council 37 Municipal Employees Legal Services, practicing landlord-tenant law.

Copyright 1997, The New York Law Publishing Company.