05/26/2011 12:22 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011

Tenants' Rights Are Human Rights: A Response to Critics' Misrepresentation of Rent Regulation

It is indeed a privilege to live in the greatest city in the world. As a lifelong Brooklynite and a former community organizer, I know this from living and working with the diverse men and women that make up the fabric of New York City.

At the same time, it is more than just a privilege; it should be considered a right, or at least a moral imperative, to afford to live in the city where you work. There are 2.5 million New Yorkers, of which 1.6 million are of low or middle-income, in grave danger of losing this ability if the State Senate allows the state's rent regulation laws to lapse on June 15th. I am proud to stand with these tenants in our fight to defend these basic rights even as many of our top leaders, including the mayor, have been conspicuously silent.

Rent burdens in New York City are already close to or above the generally accepted standard of affordability; for example, in 2008 the median low-income rent-regulated household paid 48 percent of its income in rent. Without the rent regulation laws, these households will be subject to rent escalations that they simply cannot afford. More than one out of every three low and middle-income households in our city risk losing the right to shelter they have enjoyed from their rent regulated apartment.

These laws do more than control and stabilize rents. Rent regulation also ensures that tenants have basic protections against landlords and owners with bad business practices. It requires basic services and to be maintained and shields tenants from eviction proceedings where good cause does not exist. If they expire, the right to renew one's lease may be taken away and the building codes that are on the books may not be enforced, furthering endangering tenants.

Opponents such as the Rent Stabilization Association and Real Estate Board of New York have spent thousands trying to misdirect New Yorkers on this issue. They tell us that rent regulation serves to benefit the rich, while in fact the median income of a rent-regulated tenant is only $38,000. They have said this struggle is only about rents, when actually many landlords want to erode rent regulation so tenant protections can be weakened. As a result, we have been forced to defend the status quo in the name of the 2.5 million New Yorkers that depend on it.

This fight should not be about merely protecting how things stand, because at this moment we are in the midst of a housing crisis. The problems this city faces with affordability and homelessness are testament to how weak tenants' protections are as is. We should also be addressing issues such as the abuse of high income and vacancy de-control. Landlords and owners are allowed to make unnecessary repairs and even lie to reach the $2,000 threshold that destabilizes rental units. This action adds to the thousands of units that are removed from our stock of affordable housing every year.

Much of this struggle has been a result of the inability for the city to address this problem itself. Because of the 1971 Urstadt Law, home rule has been replaced by a group of upstate Republican senators who have little to no rent regulation in their districts deciding the fate of hundreds of thousands of tenants in the five boroughs.

What has been so easily forgotten by these senators and their financial backers in the real estate industry is that these one million plus rent-regulated apartments represent one million plus homes of working-class New York families trying to contribute to their communities while struggling under the weight of rising standard of living costs. Albany is engaged in a game of chicken, and the livelihoods of 2.5 million New Yorkers hang in the balance.

Tenants' rights are human rights. Let's remind our representatives in the State Senate of that.

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams represents the 45th Council District, which covers Flatbush, East Flatbush, Flatlands, and parts of Midwood and Canarsie. He is the chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee and a member of the Immigration Committee. He was first elected to office in 2009.