As affordable housing issues take center stage in Kingston with a series of public hearings and heated debate over a major market-rate apartment complex being pitched for the heart of Uptown Kingston, a local activist group has published a study arguing that evictions in the city are reaching rates not seen since the housing crisis a decade ago.
The study, prepared by Kingston Creative owner and housing advocate Alex Panagiotopoulos, aligns with other data showing that an increasing proportion of Ulster County residents are having difficulty keeping up with rising rents.
Panagiotopoulos compiled the survey using data from Kingston Landlord Support, a website founded in 2008 to assist local landlords by identifying tenants with a history of evictions. The website uses information culled from Ulster County courts, the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Kingston’s Building and Safety Division.
Panagiotopoulos’ analysis found that countywide evictions have risen by 57 percent since 2013. Last year, there were 676 evictions in Ulster County — an all-time high. So far in 2019 there have been 130 evictions. Panagiotopoulos’ study concludes that, if that pace continues, 2019 will end with 780 evictions. In Kingston in 2018, evictions rose 32.25 over the previous year, reaching a total of 210. That number, the study indicates, equals city’s eviction rate in 2010 at the height of the Great Recession.
“I think the data really confirms what renters have been saying,” said Panagiotopoulos. “You hear the same stories over and over again: they have no power, the landlords control everything and if you want to pursue legal action, it’s very difficult.”
The numbers in Panagiotopoulos study line up with findings from Ulster County’s annual housing affordability survey. Data from 2017, the last available year, show that average rents in Ulster County have risen by 55.8 percent since 2002, far outpacing wage increases. The survey also showed that more than half of Ulster County renters are “housing cost-burdened,” meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. The study found that 55.1 percent of county residents qualified as rent-burdened while nearly 30 percent spent more than half of their income on rent placing them in the category of “severely cost-burdened.”
In Kingston, concerns over housing affordability have led to a surge in activism. Panagiotopoulos published his study on the website of the Kingston Tenants Union, a new group formed to advocate on behalf of the roughly 50 percent of city residents who live in rental housing. The Kingston Common Council, meanwhile, organized a series of public hearings on housing issues. In Albany, lawmakers are debating a proposal that would allow communities statewide to implement rent regulations to put a cap on annual increases.
Kingston Tenants Union organizer Juanita Amador said that she plans to attend every eviction proceeding in City Court this month to get a better handle on the issue. Amador said that as things stand now, landlords hold all the cards when it comes to evictions. In many cases, she said, tenants find themselves evicted simply for reporting unsafe or unsanitary living conditions.
“People call the landlord to report these things and they never hear back,” said Amador. “Then when they do come out, they tell you, ‘Oh, it’s uninhabitable, you’re evicted.’”
But Ulster County Sheriff’s Chief Civil Officer John McGovern said the largest share of evictions are, by far, for nonpayment of rent. The eviction procedure in those cases, he said, was simple, straightforward and difficult to defend against.
“It’s pretty simple — you don’t pay your rent and you get evicted,” said McGovern.
Mayor Steve Noble has made boosting home ownership a centerpiece of his efforts to address affordability. The recently founded Kingston Land Bank plans to take dozens of vacant homes held by the city for back taxes, rehabilitate them and sell them to first-time buyers at an affordable price.
But, Noble said, the broader issue of affordability could be addressed through rent regulation. Currently rent control laws are only authorized in New York City, Rockland and Westchester counties and Long Island. But a new Democratic majority in the state legislature is facing pressure from housing advocates to allow communities statewide to implement the measures.
“[Rent control] seems to be where things are heading,” said Noble. “I would have to see the details, but that’s a good place to start.”
Any move to regulate rents is likely to face strong pushback from landlords who say that high taxes and increasing home sales prices are already eating into their profits and their ability to maintain properties. Bob Dittus, a recently retired landlord who once owned 50 units of housing in Kingston, said rent control would harm landlords — and ultimately tenants — and fewer and fewer people would in rental properties.
“How can you control rents when the cost of everything else is going up around you?” said Dittus. “You’re telling [landlords], ‘Here’s a job for you, but you’re stuck at this level forever, no matter what you do.’”