Housing affordability and tenant’s rights are poised to become a major issue in Kingston next year, as a coalition of activist groups forms to address what they call an ongoing crisis. Meanwhile, city officials seek solutions to soaring rents and unaccountable landlords.
“The challenge we face is to balance the increase in development with our deep desire to treat housing as a right, not a privilege for people with a certain income level,” said Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3).
Scott-Childress has proposed creating a new committee to focus on housing issues, or handing off housing to an existing Common Council committee. He has also asked the Corporation Counsel’s Office to look into potential legal remedies to housing issues in the city.
Scott-Childress said he was motivated to make the request by a surge in activism around housing issues. “There are people coming to the council who want to have a discussion around these issues,” he said. “And we need to have some kind of mechanism to have those conversations.”
Juanita Amador is one of the activists pressing for action around housing issues. The Kingston resident who works as a community organizer for Citizen Action New York is part of an effort to organize a Kingston tenants union to represent the estimated 56 percent of city residents who live in rental housing. The budding group will be holding a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church.
Amador said the idea for tenants union grew out of discontent among residents of four local apartment complexes owned by Queens-based E&M properties, including Kingston’s Sunset Garden. But Amador said that the issues raised by residents there highlighted a bigger issue — a lack of strong tenant’s rights laws in upstate New York.
“The way things are right now, there is no protection if you’re a tenant,” said Amador. “If a landlord wants you out, you’re out.”
Advocates like Amador are pushing for new legislation that would hold landlords and their agents responsible for failing to address substandard living conditions. Callie Jayne, director of the social justice advocacy group Rise Up Kingston, said the problems go well beyond a handful of apartment complexes. Rather, she said, tenants across the county frequently found themselves living with conditions ranging from mold and vermin to no heat or hot water, and threatened with eviction if they complain.
“In many cases, the best-case scenario turns out to just move, and lose their security deposit,” said Jayne. “Because unless they can afford a lawyer, they have no recourse.”
Mayor Steve Noble said the city is trying to address landlord accountability by adding staff to the Building and Safety Division and stepping up inspections of rental units. But Noble acknowledged that more needed to be done to address the issue.
“There is a lot of work happening locally, our building department and housing agencies work well together using the tools that they have,” said Noble. “But we don’t have enough tools.”
The rent is too damn high
While landlord accountability can be addressed through local legislation and use of city resources, a crisis of affordability is perhaps even more pressing an issue for the city’s renters. The last few years have seen major churn in the city’s rental housing markets as new buyers acquire properties that range from entire apartment complexes to two-family homes. Much of the new investment has come from downstate developers taking advantage of tax rules that allow them to avoid paying capital gains taxes on real estate sales, provided the profits are reinvested in new real estate deals. In the past few years, Kingston has seen a wave of buyers from downstate purchasing properties at prices far above their assessed value.
Rising sales prices mean higher rents for tenants. Local wages have failed to keep pace with the housing market, leaving more and more families unable to keep up. RUPCO CEO Kevin O’Connor pointed to a recent study which showed that seven in 10 Kingston residents were either living below the poverty line, or lacking the financial resources to ride out setbacks like a temporary loss of income, car repairs or unexpected medical bills.
“What’s changed is that now we’ve had these transfers of property and the introduction of new players in the housing market locally,” said O’Connor. “Tenants are being bumped for higher rents and there’s really no protection from that.”
Equal housing advocates are pinning their hopes for addressing the affordability crisis on a new Democratic majority in the state Senate. For years, progressive legislation has sailed through the Dem-majority state Assembly, only to die on the GOP-controlled Senate floor.
Could Kingston have rent control?
High on that wish list for upstate progressives is an expansion of the state’s rent control regulations. Current state law allows local governments to opt-in to rent regulation, but only in the New York City, Westchester and Rockland counties. Housing advocates want to see that opt-in provision expanded statewide. Rent control typically limits how much landlords can raise rents on existing tenants from year to year. Supporters say the regulations bring more predictability and stability to housing markets by limiting property owners’ ability to sell at prices so high that new landlords have no choice but to dramatically jack up rents.
“I think that’s a conversation that we should be having here in Kingston,” said Noble. “But first we need to have that opt-in option and that has to come from the state.”
Other fixes for affordability touted by housing advocates include pinning property assessments to rents, thus creating a tax incentive for landlords to keep rents low. And, as the city prepares to revamp its zoning code, other advocates want to strengthen requirements that developers include affordable housing in new market-rate and luxury projects.
Fairness for Section 8
Tenants’ rights advocates are also seeking local legislation that would forbid “income source discrimination.” Specifically, they say, they want to see laws that would ban landlords from declining to rent to people using rental assistance vouchers through the federal Section 8 program. RUPCO administers some 2,000 Section 8 vouchers in Ulster and Greene counties under a federal contract. Under current local laws, O’Connor said, there was nothing to prevent landlords from turning down rental applications solely on the basis of a would-be tenant’s income source. In fact, O’Connor said, the phrase “No RUPCO,” which has emerged as a rallying cry for opponents of the agency’s proposed low-income senior housing complex on Flatbush Avenue, was taken from classified ad shorthand used by landlords to indicate that they did not accept Section 8 vouchers.
O’Connor believes the solution to the affordability issue is more affordable rental housing. He points to a 2008 study that projected the need for hundreds of new affordable housing units in Kingston in the coming years. Instead, just a handful have been built. But Noble sees another way out of the crisis — increased rates of home ownership. In the past few years, Noble has undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at shifting city residents from renters to owners. Most recently, the city instituted a land bank to purchase rehabilitate and market distressed properties. One of the land bank’s goals is to help first-time buyers by connecting them with capital, waiving closing costs and other aid.
“There are people paying more to rent their apartment than I pay on the mortgage for my house,” said Noble. “That doesn’t make sense. We need to get some of these people into their own homes.”
The housing issue could take center stage next year as citywide elections loom in November. In recent years, efforts to create affordable housing the city have faced pushback from those who feel that Kingston has already taken on more than its fair share of Ulster’s poorest. Any move to regulate rents or place additional requirements on developers could well also face pushback from real estate interests, who point to the hot real estate market as sign of renewed economic vitality in Kingston after years of decline and stagnation.
“We can’t wait until after the next election,” said Scott-Childress. “This needs to happen in the next year.”