After hearing arguments from both plaintiff’s and defense’s counsels, state Supreme Court judge David Gandin on November 22 made permanent his temporary restraining order to prevent the City of Kingston’s rent-control guidelines from going into effect.
One guideline would have reduced rents by 15 percent for tenants in buildings with six or more units built before 1974. The other would have instituted a retroactive lookback period allowing tenants who felt their rents to have been unfairly raised during the last three years to file an appeal with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. (DHCR).
Unprecedented change can be a double-edged sword when wielded in the courts of American jurisprudence. Judges set a high value on precedent, using it inform their decisions.
After the judge’s ruling, Diana Lopez Martinez, a member of both the Kingston Rental Guidelines Board and For the Many, took issue with it. “We’re not the first ones to be to have a board,” says Martinez. “But it’s the first time in the Hudson Valley.”
“This was the first rent reduction in New York State history,” exulted Aaron Narraph Fernando, For the Many communications lead, “providing desperately needed relief for the residents of over 1200 apartments.”
The rent reduction didn’t pass muster pass muster with Gandin. “The provisions enacted were clearly found to be in contravention of the law,” ruled the judge, “both the law as enacted by New York State — the enabling legislation — and the law as interpreted by courts higher than this one.”
Elected a Supreme Court judge in the Third Judicial District last year, Gandin, a Vassar College graduate, lives with his wife and their four children in Gardiner. According to an article last year in the Southern Ulster Times, “In his spare time he keeps bees, raises chickens, plays upright bass and guitar, and enjoys exploring the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley.”
Passed on November 9, both measures were hailed by the community organizing group For the Many, along with Citizen Action, Hudson Valley DSA and Housing Justice for All. They had supported the guidelines as essential fixes to the housing crisis declared by Kingston’s mayor Steve Noble along with the common council.
“At the last two hearings, there were 70 different tenants and their allies who came out, the vast majority to support rent reduction,” said For the Many’s Fernando. “…. I think it’s unfortunate and really disappointing that a single man can go and decide to sue the board itself, challenging its legitimacy and not properly engage with this process.”
A rental guideline board in the Village of Ossining in Westchester County had set a lookback period of six months after a study found a vacancy rate of 3.09 percent for tenants in buildings with six or more units built before 1974. Might the three-year lookback paired with the first-of-its-kind rent reduction have been too much for Gandin to swallow?
A New York State law known as the Emergency Tenants Protection Act (ETPA) calls on rent guideline boards to make such recommendations. Passed in 1974, the ETPA comes into force when vacancies for a certain class of apartments fall below five percent.
In June 2020 the Office of Housing Initiatives for the City of Kingston released a study which found among affected properties a vacancy rate of 1.57 percent. The board’s existence was triggered by the declaration of a housing emergency.
A group of landlords challenged the accuracy of the vacancy-rate study. asserting that there was in fact no housing emergency in Kingston. That case has not yet been ruled on. A lawyers’ conference is scheduled for December 30.
Gandin noted the court’s wish to keep the status quo until a decision is made on the housing emergency. Rent raises would remain forbidden, and evictions prohibited without good cause. Current tenants in rent-controlled units whose leases have expired will become month-to-month tenants unless a landlord chooses to renew their lease.
Previous to the court action, the plea for representation from the rent guidelines board had been granted from the state attorney’s general office. Assistant attorney general Heather Rubenstein was in the courtroom. Given an opportunity to make her arguments before Gandin, Rubenstein demurred, thanking the judge and noting that her arguments from the previous Friday would suffice.
No matter who wins, there’s likely to be an appeal to run up the flagpole to Albany.