“If we don’t get this bill, it will allow landlords to do what they like in terms of moving people out,” Leroy Johnson, chair of the Flatbush chapter of New York Communities for Change, tells a rally in Brooklyn on the sunny, chilly morning of December 9.
The bill he’s talking about would outlaw evicting tenants without a specific “good cause.” It’s at the top of tenant groups’ agenda in Albany for the 2022 session, made more urgent by the impending expiration of the state’s moratorium on evictions on Jan. 15. And state Senator Kevin Parker, whose district office one block east of Nostrand Avenue is the site of the rally, has withdrawn his cosponsorship.
“For some reason, which might be greed,” Johnson says in a rich Caribbean accent.
The office looks empty, but the roughly 25 protesters sing loudly. Expanding tenant protections, Johnson says, would affect thousands of people in Flatbush. The buildings on the block are mostly two and three stories high, too small to meet the six-apartment minimum for rent stabilization. And the neighborhood isn’t rich: Around the corner on Nostrand Avenue, the line for the 50-pound bags of potatoes and cabbage being given away by the storefront Church of God of Salvation (Eglise de Dieu du Salut) is bigger than the demonstration.
The good-cause bill, sponsored by state Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse), would give tenants in more than 1 million unregulated apartments protection against being evicted without a specific cause, such as not paying rent or creating a substantial nuisance. It would cover all private apartment rentals except for owner-occupied buildings with less than four units, sublets and apartments already covered by rent control, rent stabilization or federal rent regulations.
Unless we can do something to protect unregulated tenants, we will be stuck in the market cycle where eventually no one will be able to afford to live in New York City.
It would also, according to Salazar’s office, create a presumption that tenants have the right to renew their lease and that raising rent by more than 3 percent a year (or more than 1½ times the inflation rate, as measured by the federal Consumer Price Index) is unreasonable. Tenants could contest a rent increase or lease refusal in court, and the landlord would have to prove it was justified, explains Oksana Mironova of the Community Service Society.
The bill would cover almost 1.6 million households in New York State, the CSS estimated in September. That would include more than half of renters upstate and more than 70 percent in Suffolk County, areas with no rent regulations. But it would also include about 785,000 apartments in New York City, in buildings that are too small or too new to be covered by rent regulations and in apartments deregulated under the 1990s rent-stabilization loopholes.
“We have a big membership that lives in unregulated housing,” says Jennifer Hernandez of Make the Road New York. But when those tenants complain about massive rent increases — “$300, $400, sometimes $1,000,” she adds — “we have to say there are really no protections … but here is this bill that will change that.”
It would also protect tenants who are demanding repairs or complaining about lack of heat and hot water. For tenants in this situation, the fact that they have no legal right to renew their lease means “there really is no due process,” says Rima Begum, associate director of housing stability at Chhaya, a Jackson Height-based organization serving South Asian immigrants.
“The only advice I can give them is that the risk of fighting your landlord is eviction,” she says. “By the time they get to court, their lease is going to be up.”
In Ossining, says Michael McKee of Tenants PAC, almost all the tenants who testified in favor of rent stabilization in 2016 had been forced out by the time the Westchester County town enacted it in 2018.
Several cities upstate enacted good-cause eviction laws this year. Albany was the first, in June, although its law allows landlords to evict tenants if they’re selling the building to a buyer who wants it delivered vacant — a dangerous loophole, says McKee. The fast-gentrifying town of Hudson passed a similar law, but the mayor vetoed it so it could be amended to exclude that loophole, he adds. The revised version is expected to pass, says Rebecca Garrard of Citizen Action.
Poughkeepsie and Newburgh enacted good-cause laws this fall. Kingston’s Common Council on Dec. 7 decided to postpone its first vote on one until January, after tenants objected to a provision exempting buildings with less than five apartments — about two-thirds of the rental apartments in the city, they said.
Similar measures have been introduced in Beacon, New Paltz and Ithaca. In Syracuse, the city’s corporate counsel is reviewing the bill’s language, says Garrard, while in Rochester, advocates are waiting for the incoming mayor and City Council, who are “much more politically inclined to pass it.” Preliminary efforts are underway in Utica and Buffalo.
That all laid the groundwork to push the good-cause bill in the state Legislature. “We’ve created a mandate,” Garrard says. “Electeds are realizing they can’t come out against a policy that their constituents and local legislators strongly support.”
Albany Assemblymember John McDonald was a vocal opponent of the city’s good-cause bill, but switched sides when it passed, she notes. He and Assemblymember Kevin Cahill (D-Ulster/Dutchess) are facing primaries from more pro-tenant challengers. State Senator Michelle Hinchey, elected in 2020 from the upper Hudson Valley, has also not endorsed the bill. She should remember that the previous Democrat who held the seat was unseated after one term, Garrard says: “In a purple district, you need to turn out your blue base.”
“I feel really optimistic, which is not to say this is a done deal,” she says.
McKee has more doubts. The Senate “has been ready to pass the bill for two years,” he says, but there is more opposition in the Assembly, and that has to be overcome: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins “is not ready to pass a one-house bill that puts [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] on the spot.”
The bill is “a very important protection,” he adds, but “it’s certainly not as strong as rent controls.” It doesn’t guarantee tenants the right to renew their lease, he explains, it just gives them a defense to challenge a denial in court.
Both he and Mironova say it will protect tenants against extreme rent increases, however.
Displacement and COVID
As of Dec. 12, the good-cause bill had been sponsored by 22 of the 63 state senators, and 51 of the 150 assemblymembers, all Democrats.
The Democratic Socialists of America are planning to do door-to-door canvassing and phone-banking for the good-cause bill in the districts of four Brooklyn state legislators: Parker, Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Assemblymember Erik Dilan in Bushwick, who have not signed onto it and Senator Brian Kavanaugh in Williamsburg, who is a cosponsor. The canvassers will also be feeling out possible supporters for DSA’s challengers to three of them in next June’s Democratic primary: David Alexis against Parker, Samy Nemir-Olivares against Dilan and Illapa Sairitupac against Kavanaugh.
The state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program for tenants facing eviction ran out of money after five months.
The organization’s Queens and Uptown/Bronx branches are expected to begin a similar canvassing-and-primary campaign in January.
Advocates say the bill is also essential to protect tenants and neighborhoods against displacement, as it is easy to push out renters who have no protection against predatory rent increases.
“It directly fights against gentrification,” says Begum. “Unless we can do something to protect unregulated tenants, we will be stuck in the market cycle where eventually no one will be able to afford to live in New York City.”
She and Hernandez both say they are seeing unregulated housing being bought up by speculators in the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens, most noticeably in Jackson Heights. Even illegal basement apartments are getting more expensive, says Begum.
Speculation is also intensifying upstate, says Garrard, particularly in the Hudson Valley, with housing costs up 30 to 40 percent in some areas.
Senator Salazar‘s office said they hope to pass the good-cause bill early in the session, worrying that the end of the eviction moratorium on January 15 and people’s reduced incomes from the persisting pandemic might open the floodgates for evictions.
Its restrictions on eviction were included in the original version of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, the landmark 2019 bill that closed loopholes in the state’s rent-stabilization law but were deleted before it was passed. Mironova says seeing the number of people the pandemic put in danger of eviction might spur some legislators to support it. She believes it has a “pretty good chance this session.”
Hernandez says she fears that as the pandemic wanes, people returning to the city will give landlords an incentive to push rents up. With the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program for tenants facing eviction running out of money after five months, she adds, enacting the bill “would be a good way to extend those protections.”
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