INTRODUCTION THE STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION OF NEW YORK'S RENT REGULATION SYSTEM There are few State services which directly impact upon the lives of more people in a more crucial way than the services provided by New York State in administering its rent regulatory system. Rent regulation laws have existed in various forms in New York since World War II. The basic purpose of these laws is to protect tenants from dramatic, oppressive rent increases and unjust evictions. The Legislature has enacted and periodically renewed these laws because of the acute housing shortage which has existed and exists today in the New York City metropolitan area. This housing shortage has created a market where tenants, without comprehensive rent regulations, would have no protection against spiraling rent hikes and could be evicted without cause at any time. Rent regulation in New York today operates under two basic systems. Rent Control, the historically older and more restrictive form of regulation, affects approximately 218,000 units in the City of New York and 40,000 units in eight counties outside the City. Rent increases are determined pursuant to formulas set by the State which generally allow owners to increase rents by 7 1/2% each year plus additional amounts if improvements are made to a building. Tenants are protected against eviction except in certain specified circumstances. Rent Stabilization was first enacted in 1968 and covers 943,000 units in the City of New York and 80,000 units in municipalities which have chosen to be covered by its provisions in Nassau, Westchester and Rockland Counties. Annual rent adjustments are set by local rent guidelines boards and landlords are entitled to receive additional rent increases if improvements are made to a building. As with Rent Control, tenants are protected from eviction except in certain limited circumstances. Prior to 1983 the State's rent regulation laws were administered by several agencies. Rent Control and Rent Stabilization outside the City of New York were run by the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR). Rent Control in New York City was administered by the City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). And Rent Stabilization in the City of New York, by far the largest of the systems, was run by the New York City Conciliation and Appeals Board, a quasi-governmental body funded by dues collected by the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord trade group. The Omnibus Housing Act of 1983, (Chapter 403 of the Laws of 1983), made dramatic changes in the State's rent regulation laws, eliminated the City Housing Department's and the Conciliation and Appeals Board's roles in the system and centralized rent administration within DHCR. In approving the Omnibus Housing Act in July of 1983, the Legislature and the Governor expressed the hope that the new unified administrative structure established by the bill would greatly improve the operation of the rent regulatory system and make its provisions easier to deal with for both landlords and tenants alike. As Governor Cuomo noted in his approval memorandum: "The public as a whole will be well served by administration of all rent control and rent stabilization -- for the first time -- under one roof." Upon assuming administration of the rent regulatory system on April 1, 1984, DHCR inherited a 104,000 case backlog from its predecessor agencies. An additional backlog was created in the first months of the agency's administration because of statutory changes which required landlords to register apartment rents and services and allowed tenants a limited period of time in which to challenge the legality of registered rents. DHCR'S VITAL ROLE DHCR today, as the sole administrator of the State's rent regulation laws, is responsible for processing and resolving tenant complaints and landlord applications covering every aspect of the rent system. It would be difficult to overestimate the impact DHCR's work has on the millions of New Yorkers who live in or own rental housing. When tenants face harassment from owners who deliberately cut off vital services or threaten their health and safety, it is DHCR that is charged with protecting them. When landlords illegally charge tenants more rent then the law allows, it is DHCR's responsibility to enforce the laws which prohibit such conduct. And when tenants need to know what their rights are and whether they are legally protected from eviction and unaffordable rent increases, DHCR is the agency charged with providing the answers. Landlords must apply for approval from DHCR to receive many types of rent increases, some of which are essential for the continued viability of their businesses. And they must depend on DHCR to resolve complaints made against them by tenants in a fair and consistent way. DHCR, in short, is mandated by law to play a critical role in ensuring that citizens of the state have decent, safe and affordable places to live. COMPLAINTS OF A MISSION FAILED Growing numbers of complaints from a wide range of tenants, owners and legislators that the Division was failing to fulfill its legal mandate prompted the Assembly Housing and Oversight, Analysis and Investigations Committees to undertake an investigation of DHCR's administration of the rent regulatory system.* The investigation was undertaken for three basic reasons. First, a consensus seemed to have developed among almost everyone who dealt with the system that something was fundamentally wrong with the way it was working. Chaos and disarray seemed to be the order of the day in dealing with DHCR and, almost three years after the agency's takeover of the system, the problems seemed to be getting worse rather than better. Second, Assemblyman Jerrold Nadler (D-L Manhattan), in October of 1986, charged that not only was the agency chaotic, it was systematically violating the rent regulatory laws as well. Assemblyman Nadler called for an investigation of the agency's administration of the rent regulatory system and the-joint committees undertook to review a number of the charges made by the Assemblyman. Third, the response from DHCR Commissioner William B. Eimicke and other officials to the growing crescendo of criticism about how the agency was functioning strongly suggested that increased oversight from the Legislature was necessary. DHCR's public and private portrayals of its operations increasingly took on the characteristics of an Alice in Wonderland fantasy. For them, nothing was wrong at DHCR and the thousands of tenants, owners and legislators who thought so just did not understand what was going on. Everyone in the Administration seemed quite satisfied with the job the agency was doing and did not see any need to take action to improve the situation. THE INVESTIGATION During a five-month investigation which included two days of public hearings, the committees heard testimony and received letters and phone calls from more than two hundred tenants, landlords, legislators, attorneys and social service providers documenting thousands of specific interactions with DHCR. The testimony and evidence touched upon virtually every aspect of DHCR's case-processing system. A more detailed investigation was made of the internal functioning of one of DHCR's most important units, the Columbus Circle office where the "case backlog" is processed. This investigation, which included testimony under oath from four state rent examiners responsible for processing cases and the Director, Deputy Director and a former supervisor of the backlog unit, provided a disturbing glimpse into the internal operations of the agency. Based upon the testimony received from the Division's managers and from tenants, landlords and other persons who deal with DHCR on a day to day basis, it became clear that the operations of the Columbus Circle office were typical of the operations of the agency's rent regulation program as a whole. The conclusions of this report are based on the sworn testimony of witnesses who appeared at the Assembly's public hearings, on the hundreds of phone calls and letters the committees received during the last several months from tenants, owners and others who did not testify at the hearings and a staff review of documents, memoranda, and reports from both inside and outside DHCR about how the rent system is working. The investigation was limited to DHCR's administration of the rent regulation program and did not examine the other housing programs run by the agency. WHAT THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO EXPECT FROM DHCR There is no doubt that DHCR has a difficult job. Running the State's rent regulatory system involves dealing with what has been not so jokingly referred to as one of the most passionate relationships in New York life -- the relationship between tenants and landlords. The Legislature and the public cannot expect to be happy with every decision DHCR makes or agree with every task the Division performs. But they have a right to expect and an obligation to demand that the agency operate in a lawful and organized manner. DHCR should communicate with its constituent groups forthrightly, apply its standards uniformly and manage itself efficiently. If changes are needed in the laws DHCR administers or the agency needs more resources to do its job properly, it should vigorously pursue them. And it must always operate with the knowledge that it exists to serve and protect the public and that when it is failing in that duty it is failing to uphold the mandate it was established to carry out. The investigation described and the findings detailed in the succeeding pages were made with these standards of behavior in mind. It is our hope that the results of the investigation will lead the Administration to take a long hard look at DHCR, make the changes necessary to improve its functioning and in the end, result in an improved quality of life for the millions of New Yorkers whose futures in large part depend on the continued viability of New York's rental housing. ---------- * Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs was the Chairperson of the Assembly Oversight, Analysis and Investigations Committee during the time this investigation was conducted. The Committee is now chaired by Assemblyman Brian Murtaugh.