Kingston lawmakers have signaled their support for legislation that would open the door to rent regulation in the city. But state lawmakers and the Ulster County Legislature will need to act before such regulation becomes an option for Kingston.
On Tuesday, May 7, the Common Council voted 8-1 to approve a non-binding memorializing resolution urging the state legislature to remove geographic restrictions contained in the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974. The law paved the way for rent regulation in New York City and allowed municipalities in Rockland, Westchester and Nassau counties to enact their own rent control policies, provided that a county’s vacancy rate for rental properties was below 5 percent.
Rent stabilization laws vary from community to community. But in general they impose limits on how much landlords may raise rents on properties built before the law was enacted and give tenants the option to renew leases.
The EPTA is up for renewal this year. With Democrats in control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, there is little doubt that reauthorization will pass before the legislature goes into recess next month. But tenants’ rights groups across the state are pushing for major changes in the legislation, including a removal of geographic restrictions, which would allow municipalities statewide to opt-in to rent regulation. State Sen. Jen Metzger (D-Rosendale) is one of the upstate lawmakers pushing for the expanded opt-in provision.
“I have co-sponsored this legislation because I believe our local governments should have all the tools available to ensure that housing remains stable and affordable as their communities grow,” wrote Metzger in a statement to Ulster Publishing. “It is ultimately their choice whether or not to use this tool, based on the particular needs and priorities of their communities.”
Calls for rent regulation locally have become louder in recent years as rents have grown significantly faster than wages and an ever-increasing proportion of renters have found themselves “rent-burdened” — meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their income to keep a roof over their heads. The issue had been exacerbated by low vacancy rates which have led to a tightened rental market. According to a 2017 housing survey by RUPCO, Just four Ulster County municipalities — Saugerties, the Town of Ulster, Rochester and Plattekill — had vacancy rates above 5 percent. In Kingston, where more than half of residents live in rental housing, the vacancy rate was just 1.12 percent. Rosendale, Marlborough and Gardener reported no vacancies at all in the RUPCO survey. Countywide, the vacancy rate for non-subsidized rental housing in the county was 2.65 percent.
Before any Ulster County municipality can enact rent regulation, the opt-in would need to be passed by the county legislature and signed by the county executive. County Executive-elect Pat Ryan was unavailable for comment on the issue. But at least one county lawmaker has called for a cautious approach. District 7 Legislator Brian Woltman (R-Kingston) said he had not discussed rent regulation with his fellow lawmakers and had no idea how the body might vote on the issue. But, Woltman said, he was concerned about potential unintended consequences of rent regulation that could exacerbate the city’s housing issues.
“There is an obvious problem right now with rent and people’s ability to afford a place to live,” said Woltman. “I would just want to be very careful that we didn’t take any steps that might make it worse.”
Critics of rent regulation say that imposing controls on the housing market could lead to stagnation as established tenants cling to rent-controlled units, while landlords charge newcomers even higher rates to make up the difference. They point to the example of New York City which has had rent control policies in place since the 1960s, yet remains one of the country’s most unaffordable places to live.
Even supporters of rent regulation say that imposing controls on rents could have negative consequences if not enacted carefully. Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) set up a series of forums on housing issues and said that he is generally supportive of expanding the opt-in provision of the ETPA to upstate. But Scott-Childress drew a distinction between “rent control,” which imposes hard caps on rent and rent increases, and “rent stabilization,” which takes a more flexible approach that accounts for market conditions over time and other factors.
Scott-Childress said rent regulation could only work in conjunction with other policies that address housing issues in a holistic way. “If we only do rent stabilization, without looking at these other issues, we wouldn’t be solving the problem and we might make it worse,” he said.
The short-term rental problem
Among the issues impacting affordability, city officials say, are unregulated Airbnb (and other apps like it) rentals. The short-term rentals have become a popular way for local landlords to boost revenue from their properties, but they have also eroded the supply on rental housing available to full-time residents. In addition, the ETPA as written only applies to rental properties with more than six units, while much of Ulster County’s rental market is in two- to four-unit converted single-family homes.
In the past few years, Kingston has taken a number of steps to address housing affordability, including the creation of a land bank to purchase, rehabilitate and sell vacant properties held by the city for taxes. Mayor Steve Noble said he hoped other policies would emerge from the council’s housing forums and a new fair housing plan currently under development. Like Scott-Childress, Noble said that rent regulation was just one possible tool in a broader approach to preserving affordability and preventing displacement as the city continues to attract new residents and new investment.
“Rent stabilization is a start,” said Noble. “But there are a lot of things that we need to do around this issue.”