By Dustin Brown
State Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a Democratic mayoral candidate, visited a Sunnyside community center Friday to announce proposed legislation designed to allow more senior citizens to qualify for rent-control programs.
The legislation would annually adjust the income-eligibility requirements for two state-funded housing assistance programs — the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, known as SCRIE, and the Senior Citizen Homeowner Exemption, or SCHE — based on the cost-of-living increases which regularly boost seniors’ income from Social Security, pensions and retirement funds.
“We don’t want people making a decision between eating and paying their bills and living,” Ferrer told nearly 150 senior citizens who had gathered for lunch at the Sunnyside Community Services Center on 39th Street.
Ferrer worked on the legislation with Nolan, who has introduced it in the Assembly and expects it to be considered before the session ends. Nolan recently endorsed Ferrer in his campaign for mayor in spite of the fact that two of his opponents — City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) and city Comptroller Alan Hevesi — are from Queens.
SCRIE freezes the amount senior tenants pay in rent, while providing landlords with city tax breaks equivalent to the money they lose when rents are held at a constant level. SCHE reduces the amount seniors homeowners have to pay in property taxes.
By adjusting the programs’ income eligibility limits to account for cost-of-living increases, the legislation would protect senior citizens who would otherwise lose their benefits when their income creeps above the cap.
Nolan said the bill would make more senior citizens eligible for the programs in addition to giving more security to the seniors currently enrolled in them.
“I think it’s important to start to make that not something that’s subject to legislative negotiation, but something that’s a guarantee to people from year to year,” Nolan said.
Housing advocates are typically forced to fight for the income cap to be increased whenever it falls behind inflation, said Brian Honan, legislative director for the Manhattan-based advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors. The last time that happened was 1996, he said, when the cap of $16,500 was bumped up to its present level of $20,000.
The legislation would immediately increase the cap for both SCRIE and SHIE to $25,000 in addition to establishing annual increases to account for the rising cost-of-living.
In order to be eligible for SCRIE, senior citizens must be 62 or older, earn $20,000 a year or less, and pay at least one-third of their income for rent.
“Things are just so expensive in this city that it’s tough to make it on less than $20,000” Honan said.
Honan considers the $20,000 cap to be inadequate to cover the needs of senior citizens in the city, many of whom are forced to pay considerably higher rents because they earn slightly more than the eligibility limit.
“Two weeks ago I spoke to a man who makes $21,500,” Honan said. “That $1,500 extra a year he makes is costing him much more than that in rent.”
Many seniors who listened to Nolan and Ferrer before having lunch at the community center were enthusiastic about the help promised by the legislation.
Although Kay Collin of Forest Hills said she has been able to maintain her own rent-controlled apartment without incident, her friends have faced large rent increases when their incomes crept past the cap for SCRIE eligibility.
“Some of them had to give up their apartments and live with other family members,” she said.
Although Nolan was optimistic the legislation would be approved in the state Assembly, Honan said similar legislation introduced in previous years has failed to win approval in both houses of the state legislature
“The state Senate doesn’t usually support pro-tenant legislation,” Honan said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.