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Featured Opinion

2018 a year of big issues for REBNY

Here we take a look at some of the New York City issues REBNY has been tackling over the past year:

Garment District
The zoning restrictions that have been in place in Manhattan’s Garment District have failed manufacturers and city residents alike for more than thirty years. Since the zoning rules went into effect in 1987, garment employment has declined 88 percent in the area. Meanwhile, tax revenue from properties in compliance with the zoning restrictions is 50 percent less than from buildings in the Garment District without the restrictions. City taxpayers faced a lose-lose situation, forgoing tax revenue that could pay for basic municipal services like police, fire, and sanitation to support a zoning policy that had clearly failed.
In December, the City Council approved a strategic plan to change zoning restrictions in the neighborhood. The new plan lifts stringent regulations that limited investment in the area’s building stock and provides steps to preserve the district’s historic apparel manufacturing industry. Moreover, the plan represents an opportunity to unlock the transit rich neighborhood’s true potential and jumpstart an exciting new chapter for the Garment District.
REBNY participated in a steering committee comprised of community stakeholders and testified in favor of the plan throughout the public approval process. Mayor de Blasio, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the entire City Council, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer all deserve credit for this pragmatic and innovative plan.

Building Skills New York
Building Skills New York (BSNY) is a not-for-profit organization that helps connect New Yorkers with historically high rates of unemployment and poverty to high quality training and expanded career opportunities in the construction industry.
In 2017, REBNY President John H. Banks became the Chairman of Building Skills New York. REBNY has made a substantial investment in BSNY and supports its expanding mission of helping underemployed and underserved New Yorkers find continuous employment in the construction industry.
In 2018, BSNY placed individuals in over 220 constructions jobs, an increase of more than 90 percent over 2017. BSNY had its most active month ever in October, with 28 construction placements. Of those placed, 100 percent are NYC residents and 96 percent identify as Black or Latino. BSNY has also placed over 50 individuals in additional jobs after their initial placement was complete. Ensuring that workers who successfully complete one job are then successfully placed in their next job is a priority for BSNY.
In 2019, REBNY will continue to support and grow BSNY. We see tremendous opportunity for the organization to engage more local residents and help to develop and grow a skilled construction workforce.

Commercial Rent Control
In 2018, REBNY launched a campaign to educate and inform the public about a misguided City Council bill innocuously entitled the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBSJA). The bill is commercial rent control because it would mandate arbitration between landlords and commercial tenants for lease renewals, allow a lease renewal term of ten years at the tenant’s option, and require the property owner to accept the results of the arbitration.
The impetus behind the legislation is the mistaken belief that the apparent increase in vacant storefronts is solely the result of landlords either refusing to negotiate a lease renewal or the landlord frequently asking for an untenable rent increase—but that allegation simply lack merit.
REBNY’s Retail Reports and our numerous analyses pushing back on false narratives around this issue gained considerable public attention. We organized more than one hundred commercial brokers and property owners to attend and testify at the City Council hearing on this legislation in October. We were joined by a coalition of groups representing homeowners, building service workers, and business improvement districts from across the city. The New York City Bar Association issued a report that found the Council lacked the legal authority to adopt this legislation. In addition, Mayor de Blasio signaled that there are legal hurdles with the current legislation. REBNY testified that it would bring a lawsuit if the bill passed.
Although the bill gained additional sponsors following the hearing, REBNY will continue to advance our fact-based advocacy in 2019.

Sustainability
In 2018, REBNY members were once again leaders in New York’s environmental efforts, committed to working with the City to build a more environmentally friendly New York, and to helping reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Recognizing the difficulties in finding a realistic path to achieve the City’s sustainability goals, REBNY hired a team of consultants to help develop an appropriate energy efficiency metric and formed a coalition of allies.
In December, REBNY testified before the New York City Council in conjunction with the National Resources Defense Council and 32BJ SEIU to voice our general support of Intro 1253, which would set a path toward achieving greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions by 2050.  The joint testimony emphasized the need to implement a reduction regimen focused on long-term goals, but cognizant of short-term realities.  Other environmental advocates and organizations like the Rent Stabilization Association, the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, and the Archdiocese of New York voiced similar concerns with the legislation before the City Council.
REBNY will continue to work with our environmental and labor partners on an energy efficiency framework that can achieve the ambitious goals of GHG reduction of 80 percent by 2050.

Illegal Short-Term Rentals
REBNY is concerned with the impact of illegal short-term rentals and their effect on reducing New York City’s housing stock. In 2018, the City Council passed legislation that requires Airbnb and similar home-sharing platforms to register short-term rental information with the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. Required information—which includes listing addresses, host names and rental type—must be submitted monthly. REBNY testified in support of the bill.
REBNY remains concerned with the City’s policy of issuing building and fire code violations to property owners for infractions undertaken by tenants. The City’s laws and enforcement actions should be targeted on the entity—owner or tenant—that is breaking the law. Fair enforcement should hold both tenants and owners to the same set of regulations. We have shared with the Council legislative drafts aimed at creating a solution to this public policy problem by allowing violations to be waived if property owners have taken specific actions to prevent short-term rental listings within their properties. REBNY will continue to press these points with city officials and stakeholders.

Anti-Displacement Legislation
We believe that it is important to deter tenant harassment and target enforcement on bad actors. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) issued a report that found less than two percent of landlords are likely responsible for a disproportionate amount tenant harassment.
In November 2018, the Council released a package of 18 bills intended to reduce unlawful evictions and prevent fraud—and held a public hearing. REBNY supports the overarching intent to improve enforcement, increase transparency, and prevent bad actors from unlawful harassment. However, we expressed concerned about language that negatively impacts those who comply with the law and will make it exceedingly difficult to perform renovations or construct in the City. REBNY made the point that the bills do not appear to target or provide the necessary resources to go after the limited number of bad actors. While some of the bills call for better transparency and auditing practices by state and city agencies, none assign resources, nor encourage cross agency or city and state cooperation. The bills do not seek to facilitate better enforcement, and most add more bureaucratic layers for compliance.
REBNY will continue to advocate for evenhanded legislative solutions that focus on bad actors without enacting onerous new requirements for the vast majority of law-abiding property owners.

Lead Paint Mitigation Legislation
In September, the City Council held a public hearing to debate 25 pieces of legislation that would establish new standards for lead-based hazards and amend existing lead laws. The proposals include bills that would require EPA-certified inspectors to conduct lead inspections, require soil areas around multiple dwellings to be routinely tested for lead, and allow stop work orders to be issued for any building that has a lead violation. Moreover, building owners would be required to ensure that all units are 100 percent free of lead-paint or encapsulated upon the first vacancy.
REBNY applauds these efforts and we agree that there should be continued improvements to further reduce the prevalence of childhood lead poisoning. Some of the legislation, however, is too broad in scope and not based on empirical data. We are concerned that the legislation will, in fact, negatively harm the City’s affordable housing stock and potentially even have a negative impact on public safety.
We believe that our collective resources are better served if efforts were redirected to the specific neighborhoods where elevated blood lead levels are most prevalent.
As the Council continues to update and debate this legislation, we will continue to review new policies and work with the Council and other stakeholders to advance reasonable, realistic approaches to solve this problem.

Commercial Waste Zones
The NYC Department of Sanitation released a proposal to franchise the collection of commercial waste, creating 20 separate geographic zones to be serviced by three to five waste carters for each zone by 2022. The City believes that by drastically restructuring the current open market system, it will allow waste haulers to meet stricter environmental, safety, and labor standards and better regulate the industry overall. The release of this plan triggers an environmental review of the proposal, allowing the City to review applications for zones by 2021, should legislation pass.
REBNY has partnered with other stakeholders representing small businesses and labor to publicly question whether this radical method is the only means of achieving these goals. REBNY is working with a coalition called New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management to oppose this well-intentioned, but misguided effort.
The coalition supports alternate legislation, Intro 996, that would empower the City’s Business Integrity Commission (BIC) to put in place rules to achieve many of the same goals as franchising in a shorter period and with less chance of significantly disrupting the commercial waste industry. The coalition is focused on building legislative support for this proposal and is actively working to engage the small business community.

Landmark Preservation Reform
Building on our successful advocacy in favor of establishing specific time frames for the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to approve or deny historic designations, we supported a proposal to streamline processes for all stakeholders.
Thanks to our efforts, on December 11, 2018 the LPC passed agency rule changes to move routine items, with set limits, related to ADA compliance, storefront changes, and signage for buildings within a Historic District to staff level approvals.
This includes the removal of a barrier to smaller property owners by allowing the use of experienced contractors, or other professionals with preservation experience, for the required conditions assessment for the replacement of historic materials.

SoHo/NoHo Rezoning
The antiquated manufacturing zoning in SoHo and NoHo, which does not permit retail or residential as-of-right development, is the subject of a Department of City Planning (DCP) comprehensive review. This follows a 2015 promise made to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Margaret Chin from the Mayor’s Office to reexamine the zoning.
REBNY has worked with the SoHo Business Improvement District and local stakeholders on forward-thinking solutions for the area. REBNY continues to support this reexamination and has met with city officials on this issue. Similar to the process used for the East Midtown and Garment Center rezonings, the City will form steering committees—with REBNY as a participant—to engage in a planning process and issue recommendations on the rezoning.

Hotel Special Permits
In December, the City Council adopted a zoning text amendment to require a Special Permit for new hotels within M1 districts. REBNY opposed the amendment and raised concerns that limiting the development of new hotels could tighten the market, which might spur an increase in the number of illegal short-term rentals. REBNY testified at the City Council hearing in opposition and advocated for alternatives that will less severely restrict the hotel industry’s ability to respond to changes in the market.
The requirement of a special permit represents an unnecessary constraint on the rights of property owners to address a market condition that needs no correction and appears to be motivated by factors unrelated to sound planning.

Hotel Conversion Litigation
In 2015, the City Council passed, and the mayor signed into law, a two-year ban that prevents large hotels from converting more than 20 percent of their space into condominiums or other uses. REBNY sued to overturn the law, contending that it violates due process and equal protection. The measure deprives REBNY members of property, and of rights inherent in their ownership of property.
After the Appellate Division overturned a trial court’s finding that REBNY lacked standing to bring litigation over the City’s ban on large Manhattan hotels converting space to condominiums, the City asked the Appellate Division to grant leave to appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
Our attorney advises that these motions are rarely granted and expects the case to move forward in trial court.

Property Tax Advisory Commission
Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Johnson announced the creation of a Property Tax Advisory Commission. The Commission’s goals are to put forward recommendations that will make the City’s property tax system simpler, fairer and cleaner with no net loss of revenue to the City. The Commission has held public hearings in each borough.
REBNY has testified at these hearings, focusing on the historic and structural inequities in the system, specifically as it relates to income-producing properties. Our testimony advocated for a fair, understandable, and transparent system that lessens the comparative burdens on income-producing property.
We identified numerous other issues that make the system inequitable, opaque, and cumbersome. We will continue to advocate on this issue in 2019.

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