Repeal the Urstadt Law
By Kenny Schaeffer

The Urstadt Law, named after Charles Urstadt, former Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s housing commissioner, was enacted in 1971 as part of Rockefeller’s vacancy-decontrol legislation. It specifically barred New York City from adopting rent limitations that are “more stringent or restrictive than those presently in effect” even as the housing crisis deepened..

As a result the democratic will of New York City residents is frustrated and the local legislature left powerless to address local housing conditions. From the vacancy-decontrol disaster of the 1970s to the weakening of rent and eviction protections in 1997, New York City real-estate interests have been able to use campaign contributions to buy support from upstate legislators—while city voters are ignored. The Urstadt Law is the basis for a pending lawsuit by property owners challenging a New York City law concerning building valuation that prevented landlords from giving enormous hikes to New York City’s 70,000 remaining rent-controlled households. It also restricts the City Council from reversing the massive deregulation imposed by the state legislature in 1993 and 1997.

By preventing the City Council from acting to preserve affordable housing, the Urstadt Law is an unconscionable restriction on the democratic “home rule” of New York City residents. It restricts our ability to control our policy and our destiny on a strictly local issue.

New York City should be free to enact local legislation, subject to constitutional limitations, which addresses the “profiteering, speculation and other disruptive practices tending to produce threats to the public health, safety and general welfare” These practices are the rationale for the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974, which ended vacancy decontrol after three years in which rent controls and tenant protections were completely eliminated once the tenant moved out—three years in which 400,000 households were relocated, rents shot up astronomically, and maintenance declined sharply.

But even though the ETPA reversed Rockefeller’s vacancy-decontrol measure, state courts have held that the Urstadt Law remains in effect and prevents cities “having a population of one million or more” (i.e., New York City) from enacting stronger rent regulations without the approval of the state housing commissioner. The Urstadt law does not prevent cities from exercising “police powers” to protect life, health and safety by regulating building conditions, evictions and other areas where health and safety are involved.

Charles Urstadt’s curse on New York City tenants did not stop with the 1971 law which bears his name. A major real-estate owner, he was one of the architects of Governor George Pataki’s 1994 transition platform, which made explicit the intention to end rent and eviction protections entirely, a promise which took giant steps toward realization in the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997.

Given existing campaign-financing realities, Urstadt gives the New York City real-estate industry the opportunity to buy off upstate Republican legislators in order to extract oppressive rents from New York City tenants, without being subject to control by the City Council or city voters. Other localities throughout the state are given home rule over issues of local importance. Residents of New York City are entitled to equal protection.

Next spring, the City Council must act to renew rent control and stabilization for one million New York City households. It should have the ability to adjust and strengthen rent regulation in response to the ever-tightening market, if that is the overwhelming popular consensus — which it will be. It is time to repeal the anachronistic and undemocratic Urstadt Law!