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Tenants Demand: End Rocky’s Horror, Repeal Urstadt Law by Kenny Schaeffer

Tenants and organizations around the city are increasing the demand for a repeal of the 1971 Rockefeller "Urstadt Law," which deprives New York City of home rule over rent regulation. The law prohibits local governments from enacting more "stringent or restrictive" rent regulations than those contained in state law, or from placing apartments currently exempt from regulation under control.

Named after Charles Urstadt, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s housing commissioner, the "Urstadt Law" is chapter 372 of the Laws of 1971. Chapter 371 was Rockefeller’s vacancy-decontrol provision, which led to the deregulation of over 400,000 apartments in three years until it was repealed by the Emergency Tenant Protection Act in 1974.

For the next 20 years, under Democratic governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, rent regulations were subject to steady erosion and underenforcement, as the housing crisis got worse and worse. But it was not until the inauguration of George Pataki in 1995 that the specter of complete decontrol again reared its ugly head--in the person of none other than Pataki’s transition aide Charles Urstadt, still a major player in the New York real-estate industry.

Home Rule Is a Human Right

It is no exaggeration to describe repeal of Urstadt as a human-rights issue. Far too many New Yorkers live in apartments with hazardous conditions and unaffordable rents. Half of all families of color in New York City pay more than 50% of their income in rent, according to figures released by the Public Advocate Mark Green, and their are 3,000,000 housing-code violations recorded against owners of multiple dwellings in NYC. The prohibition against New York City’s elected government dealing with what even the state legislature acknowledges to be a threat to "life, health and safety" (Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997) is a denial of the basic right of self-government.

Rocky Horrors

While Rockefeller’s vacancy decontrol lasted only three years from 1971-1974, it set off an inflationary explosion in rents that has not stopped to this day. If we want to avoid facing it again when rent controls expire in 2003, repeal of the Urstadt Law must be high on the agenda of the tenant movement.

So long as Joe Bruno and his Republican colleagues--whose only connection to the city is the millions of dollars in contributions they take from its landlords--control the State Senate, repeal of the Urstadt Law is a daunting task. This makes defeat of the Republican majority in 2002 a top priority. In the meantime, the issue must be raised because the Bruno majority rests on downstate Republicans from districts with many regulated tenants. Last year, the Assembly passed Brooklyn Democrat Vito Lopez’s repeal measure, but Frank Padavan of Queens, the Republican senate sponsor, did nothing to get it taken seriously in that chamber.

Let My People Go

The key arena for the repeal Urstadt campaign at this time is, ironically, the City Council. Numerous Councilmembers, including Steve DiBrienza, Margarita Lopez, Ronnie Eldridge, Stanley Michels and Bill Perkins have called for the enactment of Resolution 801, which would put the Council on record as calling for repeal of Urstadt by the state legislature and restoration of home rule. Without this "home rule message," it is harder to be taken seriously in Albany. Yet Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and his Housing and Buildings Committee chair, Archie Spigner, have thus far refused to allow Reso. 801 to come to a vote, or even a hearing. Call Met Council at (212) 693-0553 ext.6 to join efforts to get your Councilmember to work for the repeal of the Urstadt Law.