For the first time since the current pandemic changed everything, dozens of people showed up to speak during the public hearing on proposed changes to Village of New Paltz housing laws. These have been promoted by activists for the “good cause” aspect, which would limit reasons not only for evicting a tenant, but also for not renewing a lease. In a nod to one of the ways life has changed during this pandemic, quite a few other people participated virtually. This first session of the public hearing went on for over two hours.
There are several sections of the housing law that would be modified upon passage of this law. For one, the requirement that apartments be listed on the rental registry would get some teeth if this passes. Failure to register any qualifying unit would bar the owner from collecting rent from any tenants in the village until that matter was cleared up. The landlord would be allowed to ask for that back rent at that point — but if the tenant doesn’t pay it, that wouldn’t be good cause for an eviction.
Under this scheme, if a hazardous violation is identified in rental building, the landlord is barred from evicting tenants from any rental property in the village, not just the building with the violation.
Where the phrase “good cause” is used most frequently is in the newly-proposed section 129-18. In speaking about this section in the past, by Deputy Mayor Alexandria Wojcik has said that landlords will sometimes choose not to renew a lease in order to rent to a new tenant at a significantly higher rate. If this section becomes law, landlords who don’t renew a lease could be brought to court and asked to show good cause for that decision. Not paying rent would be considered a good cause, just as it is for evictions. However, the judge would have to determine if the tenant just couldn’t keep up with an “unconscionable” rent increase, perhaps one that was designed to get the tenant to move out. Another “good cause” would be “violating a substantial obligation” of the tenancy — provided, again, that a judge doesn’t rule that the “obligation” was imposed vindictively. It would also be okay under this law not to renew the lease of a tenant who is a “nuisance” or damaging the property, or if the apartment is being used for illegal purposes, if the landlord isn’t allowed reasonable access to make repairs and the like, or if the tenant creates violations that get the landlord in trouble. The owner may also not renew a lease if the plan is to move in personally, or let a family member live in the unit. If a property is sold, then it may be transferred free of tenants — if that clause is in the contract, and there’s no financial connection between the buying and selling parties. In all cases, if a lease isn’t going to be renewed, then the landlord must advise the tenant five months in advance.
A number of questions were raised about this proposal. As this was a public hearing, these were not answered: such a hearing is a time to gather input from members of the public, not to engage in debate. Under Mayor Tim Rogers, public hearings are left open over the course of multiple meetings to allow for as much input as possible. In the past, this has resulted in changes to language and sometimes to abandoning an idea altogether, such as when making a portion of Huguenot Street a one-way road was explored.
Jane Schanberg was one of just two current village tenants who attended in person, and it was to say that this “feels forced on the community” because there “doesn’t seem to be any data” to support the need. Schanberg called this proposal a “divisive” one that would result in rents being driven up. Several landlords in the audience confirmed that they would feel pressured to increase rents five percent a year under these rules. The rationale is that most landlords don’t hike rents on current tenants every year, preferring larger and more infrequent increases if any; that’s because turning over an apartment comes with a lot of costs. If larger increases might be thrown out by a judge, then landlords will impose regular increases at the legal limit to ensure that they can recoup future costs and continue to operate a rental business.
“The real issue is a lack of housing,” Schanberg said, and what’s needed is a housing plan, rather than “gridlock.” Part of the justification for this law is to reduce the number of people cast out during a serious housing crisis, but Schanberg was not the only person in attendance who’d rather see a focus on getting more housing units built instead.
Wojcik, author of this bill, was also presiding over the meeting in the capacity of deputy mayor. That’s despite the mayor tuning in virtually while on vacation. The emergency rule that allowed for public meetings to be held virtually is no longer in effect. The regular rules only allows a board member to participate if there’s public notice providing the address where that person will be at the time, because the meeting is technically being held in both places and anyone can show up at either location. Without that location being posted, Rogers could not participate in board discussions or votes.
Wojcik opted to alternate a speaker in person with one tuning in virtually, and before long those in the room began remarking on the fact that no one on the screen actually lived in New Paltz. Several were policy and legal experts based in cities such as New York or Albany, speaking to the benefits of ensuring the right to stable housing. Policy analyst Sam Stein, for example, spoke about how long-term renters grow deeper roots and more democratic power in a community, and said that measures like this one would have more impact on “corporate” landlords than local ones. When another speaker acknowledged being “kind of familiar” with the Hudson Valley, a wave of laughter swept through the firehouse. There was a similar reaction when economist D.W. Mason referenced “evidence in California.” Statewide tenant organizer Michael Keane said that this would bring “civility to your housing market,” while many of those attending in person instead characterized it as a “divisive” move. Attorney Judith Holner consistently referred to this as a “town” public hearing, reinforcing the perception of a lack of local knowledge. There was a sense among those gathered in person that that these broader discussions don’t reflect what’s happening in this village right now.
It was Tony Saracino who first captured this perception as part of formal testimony, saying, “No one in support has any connection to the village.” Saracino is chair of the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and used that volunteer work to demonstrate a commitment to this particular community. “I love the village and contribute to it.”
Ariel Schwartz, who also rents in the village, earned a rare point in favor of working together. Schwartz was quick to identify as a local rather than an out-of-towner, earning approving nods, and then went on to tell the gathered landlords, “You’re not bad people here.” What Schwartz predicted, however, is that landlords from the same New York City that was being openly reviled may begin operating in New Paltz, and people like that wouldn’t have the same community ties that were being expressed during this hearing. Unethical, out-of-town landlords would then be “undermining your good names” if this law is not passed.
Working against the idea that only “outside agitators” were supporting this law was Brahvin Ranga of the group Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. To offset the problem that tenants are unwilling to speak, a petition in support has been organized through that group, and Ranga reported that it had 280 signatures as of that night, August 11. “Experts spoke, but it’s the residents pushing for this,” Ranga said, residents who are often “invisible” out of fear that speaking publicly would put them at risk in some way. While Ranga readily admitted to living in Poughkeepsie, the political activist was thus being positioned as speaking for those who do live in New Paltz, but have no voice.
The landlords consistently pointed to a lack of data suggesting that this is needed, and attempted to provide their own. Mohammed Serdah spoke about polling about 15 local landlords who belong to the Property Owners’ Association, with 600 bedrooms in their collective portfolios, and said that only six tenants had been brought to court for evictions in the past five years. Leonard Loza claimed never having evicted any of more than 4,500 tenants over 43 years, and several landlords with fewer years of experience also asserted few or no evictions. Another member of the Property Owners’ Association said that the group’s membership reported 16 occasions of a lease not being renewed in the past five years – ten of which involved a single landlord.
When village trustees were researching a law that limits how long a landlord can wait before releasing what’s left of a security deposit, former Deputy Mayor KT Tobin discovered that court data are not organized in a way that makes it easy to sift through and find meaningful information. That’s also true when it comes to evictions. When it comes to extra-legal evictions, such as changing the locks, such issues only show up if they are reported. Only two current village tenants spoke at this first session of the hearing, and supporters say that this is because they are imagine a variety of forms of retaliation that could make their housing situation precarious. Renters are a majority of village residents, and here their silence is being framed as fear.
Some of the landlords also talked about fear and vulnerability. “When you rent to someone, you invite them into your life,” said John Johnson, and the end of a lease can be the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Roger Spool’s spouse was fearful of one tenant, and it felt easier to just allow the lease to expire rather than expend effort on an eviction process that could be lengthy and expensive. Anthony Prizzia said, “We all care what our neighbors think,” especially if one is renting to someone guilty of acts such as domestic violence. Adele Ruger brought up the example of a tenant displaying a hate symbol such as a swastika — which is legal — and said that the end of a lease can be a non-confrontational way to end a relationship.
Legal action a possibility
Legal action seems likely if this law is passed. Several questioned if this isn’t an attempt to impose rent control without having to do the vacancy study to establish a need. Loza intends on using the phrase “arbitrary and capricious” in court, according to the testimony provided. Several in attendance feel strongly that this would interfere with contract law, suggesting another way to undermine this law.
Deputy mayor questioned
Not everyone followed the credo of attacking the idea rather than the author. Lillian Poole observed that Wojcik “clearly does not like” landlords. Some in the audience began to express the sentiment that Wojcik was being arbitrary about how much time was given to each speaker, inferring some sort of bias.
Teresa Thompson was one of a few people who noted that Wojcik had to find a new place to live 12 times when a lease was not renewed. While Wojcik did not respond to an email asking for confirmation of this that was sent Thursday morning, the comment was identified on a post to the Facebook page Wojcik maintains as deputy mayor. Responding on July 29 to a comment made by local landlord Ed Burke, the page administrator — presumably Wojcik — wrote in part: “In my own experience, this has happened to me 12 times here in VONP;” the comment was edited on August 6 to replace that portion with, “It’s happened to me too.” Thompson opined at the hearing that “it sounds like a tenant problem” to have so many lease renewals declined.
After the meeting, Thompson and others took notice of the fact that Wojcik was posting to social media about the hearing while it was occurring, and criticized this as a lack of attention. This led to additional scrutiny of, and criticism about, Wojcik’s social media accounts and method of mixing personal and public roles thereon. For example, there’s a post that discusses how support of this idea led one “landlord lover” of Wojcik’s to ask about rekindling that relationship.
Rogers posted to Facebook later about renting to the now-deputy mayor in 2013, and describing Wojcik as “a responsible and communicative tenant” who Rogers hired for the village clerk’s office two years later. The mayor quickly confirmed that Wojcik was offered a renewal on that lease when asked.
The hearing on this law remains open, and it’s likely changes will be made in response to some of the testimony provided. When changes are “substantive” a new hearing must be opened instead, but since this mayor’s approach is to leave hearings open over long periods of time, it’s likely there will be quite a bit more opportunity to speak on this issue in the coming weeks.