Volume 75, Number 14 | August 24 - 30, 2005

Tenants feel empowered after vote on buyout bill

By Albert Amateau
The City Council last week easily overrode Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s veto of the Tenant Empowerment Act, introduced by Councilmember Alan Jay Gerson, which gives tenants the right of first refusal to buy their buildings when landlords leave rent-subsidy programs.

The 44-3 vote on Aug. 17 was more than the two-thirds of the 51-member Council needed to override a mayoral veto.

In a statement issued prior to the veto, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said the bill was unlikely to withstand a court challenge. The Bloomberg administration also doubted that tenants could raise market-rate financing within the 120 days provided by the act. The administration also said it was doubtful that tenants would be able to keep rents affordable after purchasing properties at market rate.

But at a rally of nearly 100 supporters on the steps of City Hall an hour before the override, Gerson said passage of the bill would encourage organizations like nonprofit developers and labor unions to come up with financing. “We’ve even been told by people in the banking industry that banks are also likely to be interested,” Gerson said.

Supporters said the bill could save affordable housing for tens of thousands of people at risk of losing homes at rents they can afford to pay. Over the past year, the legislation was revised to make sure its provisions did not constitute an unconstitutional taking of private property, Council staff members said.

The bill is intended to encourage deals like the one West Village Houses tenants made last year to acquire the property when the landlord left the Mitchell-Lama program. However, the West Village Houses deal was voluntary, not compelled by legislation.

Maizie Torres, tenant association president of the 250-unit L.E.S. [Lower East Side] I and II project between Avenues B and C from Ninth to 12th Sts., said the tenants have been working with GOLES, a neighborhood group, to organize a nonprofit housing corporation to take advantage of the bill.

L.E.S. I and II tenants have seen vacant apartments being renovated with luxuries like Jacuzzis, indicating that the landlord intends to take the project out of the Section 8 program when the contract expires in 2006, Torres said. “Even if he stays in Section 8, it could disappear if the federal government cuts funding,” she added.

Gerson said earlier that the bill could protect Independence Plaza North in Tribeca. Supporters of the act said it had been carefully revised to make sure its provisions do not constitute an unconstitutional taking of private property if the federal enhanced voucher program were discontinued. The voucher program was introduced to I.P.N. last year as part of an agreement to preserve affordable housing when the new landlord left the Mitchell-Lama program.

Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Councilmembers Margarita Lopez, John Liu of Queens and Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn spoke to the cheering crowd at the rally before going in to vote for the override.

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