January 30, 2019 rates as an important benchmark in the push to see Good Cause Eviction become the law of the land. This is the date the cause was picked up and championed at the statewide level by a New York state senator.
The titles of legislative bills are rarely catchy, but 18th district (Brooklyn) State Senator Julia Salazar’s ‘act to amend the real property law, in relation to prohibiting eviction without good cause’ says everything it needs to say.
Since its introduction, the bill has been kept frozen in the chambers of the Senate judicial committee. The bill also known as S3082 is now in its second iteration as it waits for action. And waits.
Legally, ‘good cause’ is the burden placed by the court on a litigant, to show why a request should be granted by a judge of the court and whether there is sufficient reason to justify a favorable ruling.
Unable to show good cause, the plaintiff who brings a case will lose.
In the State of New York, the original ‘good cause’ eviction law was passed in 1989 to protect residents of mobile home parks from erratic or unscrupulous landlords.
In the case of the tenant of a mobile home park being tossed out onto the street Local Law 7, as it was called, ensured the landlord was not evicting the tenant just to satisfy a personal or financial kink.
Two decades later, the same protections granted to tenants of mobile homes were finally extended to include residents of prefabricated homes as well.
Previous to local law 7, either the tenant or the landlord could terminate the rental arrangement, no cause required by either side, when the lease agreement was up. On the state level, this is the conventionally practiced arrangement and it still holds sway for anyone not renting in a trailer park.
But maybe the landlord has grown weary of their tenant for some reason. Well, it’s the landlord’s property. It’s easy enough to wait the lease out, opt not to renew, shake the welcome mat out and try their luck with the next tenant.
But in only a few short years, rents in Ulster County have skyrocketed astronomically, the availability of rental units has plummeted. Same goes for housing prices and housing stock for any renters who would be homeowners. And the City of Kingston at least, if not the whole County of Ulster, is staring down the barrel of a housing emergency decades in the making, its arrival and the consequences it brings with it as predictable as putting fire to a fuse.
And landlords were surprised to find themselves pushed into an arena, expected to fight in front of a shouting crowd of tens of thousands if they expected to go on making a profit.
Canny political wind tester that he was, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a housing bill that made it to his desk, State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins (now Senate Majority Leader) bill, the Statewide Housing Security & Tenant Protection Act of 2019, known as HSTPA — essentially rent stabilization. It became law on June 14 of that same year.
Before HSTPA, landlords were entitled to increase the rent by up to 20%, once every calendar year, upon the vacancy of a rental unit. No longer. Under HSTPA, the maximum yearly rent increase has been limited to a maximum ceiling of 5%. Other protections for tenants have been extended which effectively delay the initiation of any eviction proceeding, buying time for those potentially facing the season without a roof over their head. But HSTPA stopped short of including Good Cause Eviction language in the law.
And anyway, in early 2020 the Covid virus pandemic kicked off and made a complicated housing situation impossible. Businesses shut down, people could no longer work, the future was more uncertain than usual and those who could afford it fled the city centers, where Covid spikes were the most likely.
They fled in droves snapping up land wherever they could find it in suburban, exurban and rural areas. Tales of hip gentlemen with suitcases of money outmaneuvering those following the usual mortgage processes abound.
The same thing was happening simultaneously all across the country and, in the state of New York, the Hudson Valley and Ulster County specifically became ground zero for this liquid infusion, this monsoon of outsider wealth. Available housing sank beneath the waves. Rent prices went stratospheric. This was a terrible time to be evicted.
To the ex-governor’s credit, in March of 2021, a year into the pandemic, Governor Cuomo declared an eight-month moratorium on all evictions both residential and commercial, essentially kicking the can down along the gutter.
With assembly or senate level leadership foundering to produce good cause legislation, the city of Albany took the initiative by passing its own Good Cause Eviction law in April 2021, Local Law F.
Other cities soon followed suit with Newburgh passing a Good Cause Eviction law on October 26 and Poughkeepsie on November 16.
Many pro-landlord groups followed these legislative accomplishments with dismay, watching as well-organized political movements fundraising off of pro-tenant platforms sprung up all around the Hudson Valley like antagonistic mushrooms after the rain.
But then there was not much they could do about it. They would have to bide their time and wait for the backswing of the pendulum.
As it turned out, reversals were not long in coming. In November at least one group of landlords had filed a lawsuit in Albany which challenged the city’s Good Cause Eviction law, arguing that the legislation improperly attempted to regulate rental rates and tenant evictions and was preempted by state law.
While Beacon and Kingston would soon create their own Good Cause Eviction laws, signs the momentum for the movement might falter began to tell.
Recognizing that any requirement for the landlords or property owners to provide a justification for eviction or removal of tenants from housing accommodations was expressly excluded from the HSTPA, Ulster County Legislator Abe Uchitelle offered up a proposal in September to get the ball rolling on a countywide ‘good cause’ law which would extend to those renting even outside the trailer park communities.
Having replaced Cuomo in August, new Governor Kathy Hochul had extended the eviction moratorium until January 15. But the full balance of 120 days until the moratorium would expire passed without progress made on Uchitelle’s proposal for a public hearing on the law. January 15 had come and gone, the eviction moratorium had expired and still there had been no action by the Ulster County legislature.
“I can speak to that,” says Legislator Uchitelle. “Some of my colleagues are themselves landlords, and they were concerned that by speaking on the issue, that they would be accused of a conflict of interest. So we asked the ethics board to issue a preliminary opinion and the ethics board recommended that nobody who owns properties, that runs rental property should participate in this. Well, that happens to be a significant portion of the legislature, a significant portion of the Democrats in the legislature. [The opinion] was certainly not desirable, particularly because many of the landlords are the votes that I would be counting on to pass the law.”
But most ominously for counties and cities in the region, just weeks ago on June 30, 2022, a state supreme court judge, Christina Ryba, ruled in her courtroom that Albany’s Good Cause law “improperly attempts to regulate rental rates and tenants evictions at a local level already established by State Law.”
Judge Ryba struck down Albany’s Good Cause Eviction law.
What the ruling means down the river from Albany for the municipally adopted Good Cause Eviction laws has yet to be reckoned with.
The city of Albany has already appealed the State Supreme Court’s ruling. In New York the loudest legal voice intones from the Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, the City of Kingston at least is in no hurry to strike down it’s Good Cause Eviction law and will maintain its legal position pending lawsuits. None have been filed so far.
After clarifying the ethics question and having passed a new ethics law, the Ulster County legislature intends to pursue the Good Cause amendment to the Local Law later in the year.
“We’re in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting to see the outcome of [Albany’s] appeal,” says Uchitelle. “Our law is quite a bit different than theirs in the way that we define some of the terms, but there are some overlapping basic principles that would be affected. If the state preempts us on matters relating to evictions and leases, there’s little that we can do. Our hands will be tied on the topic if it’s determined in court, which it has been at the state Supreme Court level. So we’re waiting to see the outcome of that. New York State has consumed what appears to be the entire playing field of real estate law. And so we look to them to act on it.”