Major changes to New York’s housing laws could offer additional protections to renters here in the Hudson Valley. The revamped version of 1974’s Emergency Tenant Protection Act will also open the door, for the first time, to rent stabilization laws in upstate communities. The package of bills emerged from a deal between the state Assembly and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the weekend.
The passage of the law follows a two-year campaign by housing activists in New York City and Upstate who formed a coalition to lobby for reform both in Albany and in communities statewide. That coalition was instrumental in flipping several Senate seats — including some in the Hudson Valley — thus breaking Republicans’ decades-long hold on the chamber and clearing the way for a flood of progressive legislation. The renters’ rights bills faced fierce opposition from commercial real estate interests, traditionally one of New York’s most powerful lobbies.
“It really was a matter of unifying communities around the idea that tenants in every zip code deserve protection,” said Rebecca Garrard, chief housing organizer for the progressive group Citizen Action of New York and the Upstate coordinator of the Housing Justice Campaign. “This is a case where people power won out over lobbying dollars.”
The new laws strengthen existing protections, or create new ones for renters statewide. The laws apply to all rental properties. The new provisions include:
• Limiting security deposits to one month’s rent. The new law also requires landlords to provide a detailed explanation, in writing, if they choose not to return the deposit.
• Stronger protections against “retaliatory eviction.” Tenants can challenge an eviction by demonstrating that the action was taken in retaliation for complaints about building conditions. Previously, the law only protected tenants who made a complaint to a government agency, like a municipal building department. The new law allows tenants to claim retaliation based on complaints to the landlord or building superintendent.
• Establishes a stay of eviction based on hardship. Courts may stay an eviction for up to one year if the tenant can demonstrate that they cannot find similar housing in the neighborhood and that the eviction would produce some kind of hardship like limiting their access to healthcare or requiring children to change school districts in the middle of the school year. The hardship provision applies to eviction for any purpose, including nonpayment of rent.
• Bans the use of “blacklists” of purportedly troublesome tenants.
• Makes unlawful evictions, such as when a landlord clears out and apartment and changes the locks while a tenant is out, a misdemeanor crime punishable by fines of up to $10,000.
• Requires landlords to provide 30 days notice to tenants if they plan to raise the rent by more than 5 percent or do not plan to renew the lease.
But housing activists say that the biggest potential impact of the legislation is a provision that would allow communities statewide to opt-into rent stabilization. Currently, rent stabilization is only authorized in the five boroughs of New York City and Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties. In communities with rent stabilization, an independent board typically establishes annual caps on rent hikes based on area property values and other factors. If enacted, the law would only apply to rental properties of more than six units built before 1974.
The passage of the law was applauded in Kingston, a hub of housing activism.
“That’s really the game-changer,” said Rashida Tyler, a board member of Citizen Action and co-founder of the Kingston Tenants Union. “When we testified about it at the state Senate, I feel like that was a tipping point.”
In Kingston, the Common Council passed a memorializing resolution signaling support for the reforms; Mayor Steve Noble hailed the passage of the bill. It will now be up lawmakers in the various Ulster County municipalities to decide whether to implement rent regulation.
“Our next step is to go back to our local elected officials, sit down with them and think about how to get this enacted,” said Tyler.
Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) expressed cautious support for rent regulation, but said he still has questions about what powers communities would actually have to regulate rents. Scott-Childress added that rent regulation had to be viewed in the context of a holistic approach to housing issues that might include regulation of short-term rentals, voluntary agreements with small landlords to limit rent hikes in exchange for tax breaks or other incentives and developing new housing stock of all types.
“I think all of the elected officials in the city, with maybe one exception, are dedicated to improving housing at the low end of the housing sector,” said Scott-Childress. “The question is, what are the best measures to achieve that.”
If rent stabilization is authorized in Kingston, it could impact over 1,000 units in the city. According to an estimate from the city assessor’s office, 1,768 units at 80 rental properties in the city meet the standard laid out in the rent control law. But city officials noted that at least some of those units were already subsidized. If the city opts into the EPTA, it will need to first carry out a vacancy survey to determine exactly how many and which units would be impacted.
The new laws have not been met with universal acclaim. Opponents in the real estate industry say that they fear the new rules will hurt small landlords and discourage larger developers from building new housing or investing in existing stock. Mike Kelly, director of government affairs for the New York State Association of Realtors, questioned how the rent stabilization law would benefit Upstate, which, as a region, continues to lose both population and investment dollars.
“I understand the concerns [that drove the new law] to a certain extent,” said Kelly. “But this bill does nothing to contribute to the development of affordable housing. Nothing at all.”