Helen speaks out against illegal rentals at a rally before a Housing Committee hearing on Airbnb (January 20, 2015)
Helen funds free, monthly housing clinics where residents can learn about the Rent Freeze program (SCRIE and DRIE), navigating housing court, finding affordable housing, succession rights, and much more. In addition, the clinics offers residents legal advice from housing lawyers, free of charge.
New York City has a rent freeze program for low income seniors and people with disabilities who live in rent-regulated housing. In 2014 the City expanded the eligibility threshold for seniors from $20,000 to $50,000 but left behind people with disabilities. Helen wanted to make it easier for people with disabilities to stay in their homes, particularly as that population has difficulty finding employment and tends to have high medical expenses. The Council passed Helen's bill, Local Law 39 of 2014, to expand the eligibility threshold for people with disabilities to $50,000. As a result of the raised cap for both programs, an additional 13,000 people became eligible, helping seniors and people with disabilities stay in their homes.
New York City has a severely limited housing supply, and the situation is made worse by landlords who use residential apartments as hotel rooms. Helen has been outspoken on the issue of illegal hotels and the importance of using residential units as homes for New Yorkers. She introduced legislation with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez to increase the fine when an owner has illegally converted a residence into a hotel room and to report on the work of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. Helen and Council Member Jumaane Williams successfully urged the City to allocate an additional $1.2 million annually to combat illegal hotels beginning in Fiscal Year 2016, and in December 2015 the Mayor allocated an additional $2.6 million annually to combat illegal hotels.
In October 2016, Helen was invited to testify to the Toronto City Council as it began discussions about regulating the short-term rental market. Along with coalition partners across the country, Helen reached out to US Senator Elizabeth Warren asking for Federal legislation to require Airbnb (and other web based short-term rental platforms) abide by local law. Helen believes that a $25 billion (2015) now $36 billion (2017) corporation should not be able to chose which laws to follow — because Airbnb won't follow New York State law, taxpayers have to pay the price of enforcement as well as a loss of affordable housing.
When filing for permits to do gut renovations on residential buildings, landlords sometimes falsely declare the building unoccupied, which allows them to skip safety measures and create an unpleasant and potentially dangerous situation for tenants. Helen wanted to give tenants a tool so they could combat this type of harassment, known as "construction as harassment." Helen and Council Member Corey Johnson's bill (Int. 944-2015) would require the Department of Buildings (DOB) to list a building’s occupancy status on its construction permits and online. It would increase penalties for falsifying permits and make inspection fees the responsibility of the landlord who falsified a permit. This bill is likely to pass in 2017 along with 11 other “Stand for Tenant Safety” pieces of legislation.
In Spring 2014 the City Council voted to support Helen’s negotiated TF Cornerstone proposal to build a high-rise apartment building at 606 West 57th Street. In negotiations with TF Cornerstone, Helen was able to secure a new public school pre-K where the developer will pay for the buildout and the DOE will lease the space. It will be the first public pre-K in the District. Helen also secured 20% of the units for permanent affordable housing as well as an additional 20 family-sized middle income apartments, integrated throughout the building with the same amenities as the market units, and $100,000 to improve the local park, Clinton Cove.
In 2014 national and international press examined the issue of apartment buildings with separate entrances based on rent status, or "poor doors." The Upper West Side has two such buildings, 40 Riverside Boulevard and 1 West End Avenue, both of which received tax subsidies in exchange for providing affordable housing. While a New York Times editorial said that poor doors were a small price to pay for more affordable housing, Helen argued that it was a false choice: we can have affordable housing and still allow all tenants, market-rate and affordable, access to the same entrance and same amenities. In June 2015 the City banned poor doors.