Residents at some local apartment complexes have been hit with huge rent increases in recent weeks. City officials say they believe the rent hikes are an attempt by landlords to get ahead of looming rent regulation. But Mayor Steve Noble said this week he would seek to include a “look back” period in any rent control law that would allow for at least a partial rollback of recent increases.
“At least once a day I get a call,” said Noble of the rent hikes at the Dutch Village, Stony Run and Chestnut Mansion apartment complexes. “Many of these people have lived there a long time, they expected a small rent increase — instead they have a couple of months notice to come up with an extra $300 a month or find someplace else to live.”
Local elected officials, members of a tenants’ rights group and staff at a nonprofit legal services group that assists renters all reported fielding calls about the rent hikes. The increases are contained in lease renewals were first reported about six weeks ago and are typically between $300 and $400 per month. In many cases, the rent hikes targeted senior citizens who have been living at the complexes for many years and were charged lower rents than new tenants.
Assemblyman Kevin Cahill described one couple in the mid-70s that had turned to his office for help after they were hit with a major rent increase after two decades at Dutch Village. The couple, he said scrambled to find a new home before giving up and reluctantly signing the new lease.
“They’ll just have to cut something out of their life, because they don’t have the income,” said Cahill, who was a driving force behind the recent passed Emergency Tenant Protection Act which provides new protections for renters and allows Upstate communities to opt-in to rent control laws. “And their story is entirely typical of what we’re seeing. These are longtime tenants who in recognition of their being good, stable tenants have been allowed to pay lower rent than someone who just moved in.”
New owners, no responses
All three apartment complexes have recently changed hands. Stony Run is owned by E&M management, a Brooklyn-based company that recently purchased Kingston’s Sunset Garden Apartments and the Lakeshore Villa complex in Esopus. Dutch Village and Chestnut Mansion are held by limited liability corporations with no agent listed. Calls and emails to all three apartment complexes regarding the rent hikes were not returned.
The rent hikes come as the city prepares to impose rent regulation on housing complexes like Dutch Village. Under the terms of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, communities upstate can declare a “rental emergency” if the residential vacancy rate in eligible units is below 5 percent. Once that happens, the county would form a rent control board made up of representatives from all communities which opt into the program. The rent board would meet annually to set a cap on rent hikes in all eligible units. Those annual increases are typically between zero and 3 percent. The law can only be applied to rental properties of six units or more built before 1974.
Mayor Steve Noble has expressed strong support for rent control and the Common Council recently approved funding for a vacancy survey that would be a preliminary step towards Kingston declaring a rent emergency. That law, and the accompanying cap on rents, could be in place by early next year. Housing advocates believe that the rent hikes have been spurred by owners seeking to maximize profits before the new rules take effect.
“These people are not ignorant of the law,” said Peter Frank of the nonprofit law firm Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. “They are trying to raise rents as much as possible before that law kicks in.”
Cahill, meanwhile, has a different take. The veteran assemblyman said he attributes the rent increases to a major shift in ownership of apartment complexes across the Hudson Valley. In the past two years, many complexes have changed hands, with the new owners paying millions more than previous purchasers. Now, he said, they are seeking to recoup their investment by taking an aggressive “what the market will bear” approach to rents. In other cases, Cahill said, landlords had attempted to justify rent increases by saying they planned to carry out long-overdue repairs and upgrades. But, Cahill said, many of the companies snapping up rental housing in the area had long records of “rent gouging.”
“People have it backwards,” said Cahill of the belief that landlords are seeking to get ahead of the ETPA. “My motivation in advancing that legislation was because these landlords came to town.”
Before the law kicks in, though, housing advocates concede that there’s not much that can be done about the large rent hikes. Frank said that his law firm could negotiate with landlords to minimize rent increases and allow tenants to stay in their homes. But even that, he said, was as challenge since the new owners of the housing complexes are typically based outside of the area.
“They are not here, their lawyers are not here,” said Frank. “So it’s complicated.”
The Kingston Tenants Union was formed last year, in part in response to complaints of shoddy maintenance and unwarranted rent increases at Sunset Gardens. Since then, the group has taken on an advocacy role pushing for rent control in the city and other programs to assist the 60 percent of city residents who live in rental housing. KTU co-founder Rashida Tyler said the only defense against the rent hikes was activism, like rent strikes or efforts to hold property owners publicly accountable.
“The only thing we have is community power,” said Tyler.
Cahill, meanwhile, said that he plans to hold a roundtable discussion on the issue with Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz, chair of the Assembly’s housing committee. The talks will include local elected officials, tenant advocates and representatives from the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal and Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.
“The purpose of this talk will be to explore what the possibilities and the options are and to inform the public what they are,” said Cahill.
One possibility raised by Noble and Cahill was to retroactively roll back, at least partially, the most recent rent hikes. That could be accomplished either by including a “look back” period in a future rent control law or empowering a future rent control board to establish a cap on rents tied to “fair market value.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development establishes fair market value for different regions annually to guide federal housing subsidy programs like Section 8. HUD guidelines put “fair market value” for a one-bedroom apartment in Kingston at $962 a month. According to Dutch Village’s website, one-bedrooms at the complex rent for $1,300 a month. Noble said his office was currently looking what tools might be available to roll back the recent rent increases, if and when the city passes a rent control law.
“Our hands are somewhat tied right now,” said Noble. “[Landlords] are doing this legally. Which is why we need to change the rules.”