When Doreen and her husband split up five years ago, the pair reached an agreement. Doreen and the couple’s 7-year-old daughter could continue to live at her husband’s parents’ old place off Delaware Avenue in Albany. In exchange, Doreen would pay him $500 in rent out of the $700 she receives each month from Social Security — her sole source of income.
Millions of people living in New York State have virtually no protection or security as tenants.
Doreen says the breakup, though it was never finalized in divorce, was the culmination of years of abuse that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and social anxiety. (The Indypendent agreed to withhold her last name in order to protect her from possible retribution.) Despite paying more than 70 percent of her monthly income in rent and receiving no child support, Doreen says she has learned how to get by, living off food stamps and groceries from a local pantry and finding clothes for her and her daughter, now 12, in bargain bins downtown.
But on April 8, Doreen came home to the house she has resided in for 28 years to find a note taped to her door that threatened to upend the life she has built for herself and her child. The eviction notice, signed by her sister-in-law, charged that Doreen was obstructing the family’s ability to make repairs and sell the house. When her husband’s mother died three years ago, that left him and his four siblings executors of her estate. One of them, her husband’s older sister, wants to sell the home and is eager to boot Doreen out.
She was given 30 days to vacate.
“You can’t just give me 30 days when I’ve lived here 30 years,” she recalled saying to herself when she found the notice, tearfully recounting her story. “I thought I had rights as a tenant, but I guess I don’t.”
A Legal Aid Society attorney whom Doreen spoke with told her it could have been worse. She was lucky she didn’t get a 10-day notice, which is also permissible under Albany’s lax tenant protections.
Doreen is not alone. She is one of millions of people living in New York State with virtually no protection or security as a tenant.
“There were well over 5,000 eviction proceedings filed last year just in our local city court alone,” notes Laura Felts, who runs a homelessness prevention program for United Tenants of Albany.
This year, however, Felts and other longtime upstate housing advocates aim to flip the tables on landlords and put the cards in the hands of renters. They’ve formed a first-of-its-kind coalition with activists downstate to push for an overhaul of the state’s rent laws. And with Albany having turned fully Democratic last November, this might be the year to do it. The only thing standing in their way: millions of dollars and equivocating politicians with price tags hanging from their necks.
At the Landlord’s Mercy
In Albany, years of disinvestment and lax code enforcement have led to the deterioration of the city’s housing stock, but tenants are often afraid to complain for fear their landlord will throw them out. While there is a city law that defends the right to complain, most tenants who wind up in Housing Court represent themselves, and it is hard to prove that they are being evicted for expressing dissatisfaction.
The near-complete lack of renters’ rights means that most tenants upstate and on Long Island live at the mercy of their landlords.
With rent regulations and tenant protections subpar in the city that never sleeps and virtually nonexistent beyond its bedroom communities, tenant advocates across New York have teamed up.
While urban decay poses one kind of problem to renters in Albany, downtown revitalizations and urban renewal have burdened tenants elsewhere with another. Kingston, a city of some 23,000 people about 90 miles up the Hudson from New York, underwent an economic slump in the 1990s after its biggest employer, IBM, left, but things began to pick up again in the early aughts, as New Yorkers started to move north into the Hudson Valley to escape rising rents. The arrival of the newcomers meant rent hikes in Kingston.
According to one recent study compiled using data from Kingston Landlord Support, which helps landlords identify tenants with a history of evictions, renters in Ulster County are paying 55.8 percent more than they were in 2002. Wage growth has not kept pace. More than half of county residents are “rent-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. One exodus has led to another, and many longtime Kingstonians find themselves forced to move farther from the city’s center in a region where public transportation is in short supply.
New York City dwellers are familiar with this dynamic, as rent hikes in Manhattan have for decades driven renters to the city’s outer boroughs. First, come lower- and middle-income apartment hunters, then their more well-heeled counterparts. Gentrification begins to take root. But in New York City and its inner suburbs — Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties — rent stabilization safeguards can slow the tide of displacement. Not so in the Catskills, where a New York Times article recently asked, to the horror of housing activist Rashida Tyler, a lifelong Kingston resident, “Is the Hudson Valley Turning Into the Hamptons?”
“New York City for the longest time has been ahead of the game in rent-protection laws,” says Tyler, though hearing of New Yorkers who pay $3,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments still makes her eyes roll. “Things are not perfect down there. I know that. But upstate has been neglected. There’s been a disconnect between rent laws here and in the city, even though we’re starting to feel the forces of people moving up north.”
Universal Rent Control
With rent regulations and tenant protections subpar in the city that never sleeps and virtually nonexistent beyond its bedroom communities, tenant advocates across New York have teamed up and formed the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance to push the state Legislature to step in. It’s an opportune time. The state’s rent-stabilization laws, which protect some 2 million tenants in New York City and its inner suburbs, are up for renewal in June. In the past, the landlord lobby gave heavily to upstate Republicans, who controlled the state Senate and were invulnerable to the wrath of the downstate constituents their Democratic colleagues serve. This has regularly led to the weakening of New York City’s tenant protections when they came up for renewal.
This year is different. Democrats have full control of the legislative branch, and by joining forces from Westchester to Rochester, housing advocates are making it harder for landlords to fill the geographical divides with campaign cash.
“There’s been a history of tenants and the tenant movement being on the defensive,” Ava Farkas, head of the New York City-based Metropolitan Council on Housing, told Indy Radio in April. “Landlords, the landlord lobby — REBNY [Real Estate Board of New York], the Rent Stabilization Association — they have poured tons of money into upstate elected officials’ coffers.” Those politicians generally haven’t seen tenant rights as an issue affecting their constituents, but Farkas says the Housing Alliance is “making this issue hit home for them” by bringing residents of their districts to their doorstep.
Tenant activists statewide are visiting and calling their state representatives, knocking on their neighbors’ doors and taking turns going to Albany each Tuesday to rally for rent-law reform.
“It’s been so great to grow these partnerships and to become more organized,” says Felts. “What we’re opposing has so much capital behind it that for them to be organized, it is easy. They have so many resources. We’re all coming from under-resourced communities, under-resourced organizations, but this campaign is bringing us together.”
The Housing Alliance is pushing for the legislature to approve a package of nine bills that it describes as “universal rent control.” Chief among the reforms is the expansion of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) of 1974, which allows municipalities statewide to opt in to rent stabilization if they have a rental vacancy rate of 5 percent or less. The ETPA currently prohibits communities outside the New York City area from passing rent-stabilization ordinances of their own — including Kingston, where the vacancy rate is 4 percent.
Another key measure in the package is a ban on eviction without “good cause,” which would effectively give tenants the right to renew their leases — and would also restrict evictions for not paying rent increases defined as excessive. This would affect Big Apple neighborhoods like East New York and Bushwick as well, where many buildings have less than six apartments and are therefore too small to be subject to the ETPA.
It would also cover renters like Doreen in Albany and the residents of Akron Mobile Home Park, about 25 miles east of Buffalo, which Florida-based Sunrise Capital Investors (SCI) purchased in 2017 for a $1 million down payment and quickly informed tenants of plans to double their rent. Hiking rents is part of a strategy SCI chief executive Kevin Bupp follows nationally, explaining on his real-estate podcast that he does so in order to get “rid of the idiots” and get more value from the property.
Freshman state Senator Julia Salazar, who represents North Brooklyn, introduced the legislation earlier this year, and Syracuse Democrat Pamela Hunter is sponsoring it in the Assembly. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has endorsed eight of the bills put forward by the Housing Alliance and has acknowledged support within the Assembly’s Democratic Conference for universal rent control. But when the conference put out its housing platform in early April, the good-cause eviction legislation, which would go farther than any other measure toward achieving universal rent control, was not included.
The Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance has volunteers going door-to-door in Heastie’s Bronx district and has not given up on persuading lawmakers to seize the moment and ensure New York is a state affordable for all. They have until June 15, when the rent-stabilization laws expire, just before the legislative session is scheduled to close.
Illustration by Daniel Fishel.