A state Supreme Court judge quashed the complaints of a New York City tenant this week, ruling that landlords in downtown Manhattan who received tax breaks to convert aging office buildings into apartments can be exempt from limits on rent increases.
Joel Roodman, a tenant at 85 John Street, was sued by his landlord, Kibel Companies, in 2015 after Roodman objected to a 31-percent rent increase, which put his rent at $9,500 per month. Roodman argued his apartment should be subject to rent stabilization because of the tax break Kibel was receiving that year.
A lawyer for Roodman said he was considering an appeal. There have been two other court rulings on how to apply the tax break, which have reached opposite conclusions.
The tax break, known as 421-g, was created in the 1990s by the state legislature with the strong support of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The legislation required that apartments built with help from the tax break should be rent-stabilized. At the time, the posh historic office buildings of the financial district faced high vacancies as corporate tenants moved to more modern buildings in midtown. The tax break helped revitalize the neighborhood, spurring the creation of some 10,000 units. But the vast majority of them were never subject to rent stabilization, despite the specific language included in the law.
ProPublica examined the history of 421-g and found that Giuliani, then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and the real-estate industry moved behind the scenes after the Assembly passed the bill—but before it was voted on by the Senate—to exempt apartments renting for more than $2,000 a month from rent stabilization. They did this without rewriting the language of the bill approved by the Assembly. Instead, Giuliani and Bruno exchanged letters declaring their intent to exempt the pricier apartment units. The letters were read into the Senate record but were never seen by the Assembly.
"This was really an attempt to undermine the democratic process, which is really poor in New York as it is," Eric Lane, dean of the Hofstra School of Law, told ProPublica last year. "Let me assure you that these shenanigans were ways to create a legislative record without going back and amending the bill."
As mayor, Giuliani signed a City Council bill in 1994 allowing for hundreds of thousands of apartments to exit rent regulation if their rents topped $2,000 a month.
Giuliani submitted testimony on behalf of the building's owner. Marc Mukasey, a spokesperson for Giuliani, declined to comment when contacted by ProPublica last year.
In his decision, Supreme Court Judge Schlomo Hagler said there was "clear legislative intent" to exempt apartments renting for more than $2,000 a month from rent stabilization. He pointed to the Senate debate—noting there was no Assembly debate at all—and wrote that no senator objected to the content of the Giuliani-Bruno letters. Only one senator, Franz Leichter, opposed the bill, which passed 53–1.
"Notwithstanding Senator Leichter's vigorous opposition, the Legislature rejected his position and overwhelmingly voted to provide the generous tax abatements to owners to encourage the development of Lower Manhattan," Hagler wrote. "As such, it appears that the main purpose of the Plan was to stimulate economic development, and not to primarily establish rent regulation for luxury housing."
Joseph Burden, a lawyer for Kibel, said the decision was "comprehensive, well-reasoned, and grounded upon an in-depth statutory analysis, thorough examination of legislative intent, and prior case law."
Serge Joseph, a lawyer for Roodman, said the issue is far from decided, noting that as many as four other cases have been filed and are still pending on the 421-g question.
"We are disappointed, and disagree with Justice Hagler's decision," Joseph said.
As mayor, Giuliani also signed a City Council bill in 1994—a year before the 421-g bill—allowing for hundreds of thousands of apartments to exit rent regulation if their rents topped $2,000 a month. Three years later, the state legislature adopted the Council bill, stripping the city of the possibility of repealing it. Since then, 250,000 apartments that were once stabilized have become free-market units, ProPublica found.