On Nov. 9, Kingston’s newly established Rent Guidelines Board did what New York City has never done in its more than 50 years of rent stabilization: It voted 6-3 to lower rents by 15% for tenants who sign or renew leases during the year that began Aug. 1.
The Hudson River city of 24,000 enacted rent stabilization in July. The regulations cover 64 buildings with just over 1,300 apartments, about 22 percent of the city’s roughly 5,900 rental units, based on a vacancy study the city conducted in April and May. The rest are exempted by the state Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) because they are in buildings with less than six apartments or were built after the law was enacted in 1974.
After several hours of public hearings where person after person testified about having to spend 60% of their income on rent, “it became really clear that a reduction was the only reasonable choice,” says Carolina Soto, one of the two tenant representatives on the RGB.
The board also authorized tenants whose rents have risen by more than 16% since the beginning of 2019 to file fair-market-rent appeals with the state Office of Rent Administration, says Michael Tierney, the other tenant representative. The office could issue a one-time adjustment.
The rent rollback, however, was stalled on Nov. 18 when Ulster County Supreme Court Justice David Gandin, hearing a lawsuit by a landlord organization, said he would issue a temporary restraining order preventing it from going into effect.
The unprecedented rent reduction came as a result of two things: A drastic increase in housing costs in the past six years, as people moving out of New York City flooded the Hudson Valley market; and intensive grass-roots organizing.
Housing prices “have gone bananas in Kingston,” says Tyler Vanderhaag, Citizen Action’s Hudson Valley lead organizer. The city on the Hudson River is touted as “the new Brooklyn.” Landlords have been flipping buildings, raising rents by as much as 70% during the pandemic and displacing longtime residents, says Alderwoman Michele Hirsch, and apartments being converted to AirBnB rentals is another problem.
More than half of Kingston’s rent-stabilized apartments are in four large complexes, the biggest being Stony Run, a 266-unit garden-apartment development on the city’s outskirts, west of the New York State Thruway.
On Aug. 6, five days after the rent-stabilization law went into effect, Stony Run residents received what Soto, who lives there, calls “the blackmail letter” from the landlord: If they signed a new lease within two weeks, their rent would go up by 18%. If they signed by the end of October, they’d get a 30% increase. If they hadn’t signed by then, their rent would go up to $2,200 a month.
Demanding those increases before the rent board voted was illegal, Soto says.
The Beacon-based real-estate investment firm Aker purchased Stony Run and three other properties from E&M Management for $81 million in January 2021. E&M had acquired the four between 2016 and 2019 for $55 million, according to The Real Deal trade journal. Aker says it focuses on deindustrialized small cities that “will be new culture and innovation hubs” where people work from home.
Rents at Stony Run start at $1,790 for a one-bedroom apartment. But that doesn’t include fees, says Soto: $25 a month for garbage collection; $25 for parking; water and sewage charges; and Aker wants to tack on $65 more for “amenities” — what tenants say is “a pool that isn’t open and a fitness center that is still under construction.” If renters have a cat or dog, that’s another $50 a month.
Meanwhile, tenants complain about sewage backing up into their bathtubs and black mold on their walls.
Kingston tenants began organizing several years ago, but it intensified as the Common Council began considering rent control again this year. Soto, who was a Central America-solidarity activist in the 1980s, began organizing a tenant association, her first foray into housing issues.
Hudson Valley activist groups including For the Many, Citizen Action, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Assemblymember-elect Sarahana Shrestha’s campaign joined in, going door-to-door to tell residents about their rights under rent stabilization, and helping with logistics and technical advice. They were “not intrusive, but so helpful,” says Soto.
“We knocked on doors in every ETPA-covered building,” says Vanderhaag. “The number-one thing we were hearing was that it was too little, too late. The rents were already too high.” One elderly woman said her rent was more than her income, says Aaron Narraph Fernando of For the Many.
They decided to seek a 30% rent rollback, and concentrated on turning out tenants for the RGB’s public hearings. At the first one, tenants and supporters testifying outnumbered landlords and property managers by three to one. At the second, more than 50 tenants and only two landlords spoke, says Narraph Fernando.
“They decided they couldn’t out-organize us,” he says.
Instead, owners turned to the courts. In late October, the Hudson Valley Property Owners Association filed a lawsuit to block Kingston’s rent-stabilization law. The group, whose website declares “rent control is a cancer that kills cities,” argues that the city Office of Housing Initiatives survey that found the vacancy rate was below 5% — required to find a “housing emergency” under the ETPA — was invalid because it counted buildings where the landlord had not responded as having no vacancies, and illegal because the city Common Council hadn’t authorized it.
Kingston was the first city in upstate New York to enact rent stabilization after it was authorized by the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. But its first attempt, in 2020, fell through when a survey found a 6.7% vacancy rate. “Landlords were warehousing apartments,” says Hirsch. This year’s survey found a vacancy rate of 1.6%. Even if all the 33 apartments where the owners or property managers did not respond were counted as vacant, it says, the rate would have been 4.2%.
The landlords’ claims “really don’t have any weight,” says Hirsch. The Common Council did not vote on the 2022 survey because “we did it in house, so we didn’t have to approve any payment.”
“It’s really monumental,” Tierney says of the rent reduction. “I really hope it inspires some of the other cities and towns in the Hudson Valley.”