ALBANY – Millions of New York City tenants over the years have enjoyed some level of stability in their monthly rent thanks to protections given by state lawmakers and governors over the decades.
Now, there is a push by some Democratic lawmakers to bolster residential tenants across the state, a move that advocates say will afford tenants more security against evictions and limits on annual rent hikes.
Critics, though, worry about applying a New York City solution to upstate communities, where the rental housing stock can be dramatically different and where the economy is still far from robust in many areas.
New York City’s rent control and stabilization system – affecting about 1 million units all together – expires next month. With Democrats now in firm control of both legislative houses at the State Capitol, momentum is growing to amend existing laws to make them far less friendly to landlords, who had great sway in the Senate when Republicans dominated the chamber.
In past years when the New York City rent laws were expiring, there were slight whispers about trying to bring a single rent control law to all of the state. Such efforts died quickly.
But, with various grassroots and left-leaning organizations joining the push with tenant organizers, there is a growing chance that statewide rent regulations will be adopted before lawmakers end their 2019 session next month.
“It’s happening because people are hurting,’’ said Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee and an activist in tenant right causes across New York for 49 years.
“The impetus for rent control and tenant protection laws comes from need, when people are being evicted, when people are unable to afford their rent, when they’re being slapped with arbitrary rent increases and evictions. This is happening all over the country now,’’ McKee said one afternoon last week as he sat on a wooden bench outside a lengthy, closed-door meeting on rent matters being held by mostly downstate Senate Democrats.
A frenzied, end-of-session push
There is no topic taking up the time and energy of so many state lawmakers as residential rent regulation. It is being driven chiefly by downstate lawmakers whose constituents have the most direct stake in rules that now exist only in New York City and a few suburban counties.
There is an ever-growing list of bills and provisions kicking around Albany affecting tenant rent and protection. For upstate, there are two basic measures being discussed that could affect some tenants and landlords.
The main one would expand the Emergency Tenant Protection Act beyond New York City to all areas of the state. But there are limits to the idea. First, it only covers buildings that have six or more units and that were built prior to 1974.
Any community – village, town or city – could decide to opt into the rent control coverage, but local officials would first have to conduct a residential housing survey. Only if there is a net vacancy rate under 5% in a community – not including apartments, for instance, condemned or not being rented – could a locality opt into the program.
Under the main bill, county governments would have to OK the opt-in, thereby setting the stage for nasty battles between a city government run by Democrats and a county government run by Republicans. Activists are trying to change that idea to let, for instance, Buffalo – not Erie County lawmakers – decide on its own whether to bring a rent control system to the city.
If a community opts in, it would require the creation of a local board that each year would create specific percentage levels by which landlords in the qualifying buildings could raise rent each year.
Another bill that has raised a major stir among landlord groups calls for the creation of a “good-cause” eviction standard. Backers say it would give tenants in buildings with four or more units – statewide and without any local government opt-in provision – new protections against landlords who evict people without cause, such as a failure to pay rent. It also would ban rent hikes above a certain level based on a local consumer price index. Critics say it would permit a tenant to stay in an apartment beyond the expiration date of a lease no matter what the landlord wants.
Lawmakers upstate are wrestling most actively over the Emergency Tenant Protection Act expansion plan.
“To the extent that bringing New York City rent control to upstate discourages and deters potential developers in upstate from proceeding with rental residential development, that would be a big negative,’’ said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat and chairman of the Assembly’s economic development committee.
Schimminger said he’s had no constituents pushing for the rent control bill. “Any argument for the necessity of bringing New York City rent control to upstate would be met with eyes rolling and heads being scratched. Why in the world is this an imperative?’’ he said.
But State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who has co-sponsored the rent control bill, says the measure would be an important “protection to ensure that people aren’t priced out and communities aren’t gentrified.’’
“There’s no question across the state that many people are struggling to pay their rent,’’ Kennedy said.
A bill with limitations
As the rent battles become more heated, lawmakers who support the expanded rent control bill are sending a new signal: calm down.
State Sen. Neil Breslin, an Albany County Democrat and sponsor of the rent control opt-in bill, said the various criteria – building size, construction date and below 5% vacancy rate – will by their very nature limit the bill's scope.
“Many communities won’t have a need or be able to opt in,’’ he said.
Breslin said he’s had little contact from groups in Buffalo pushing for the bill, but said tenants in Rochester and some other smaller cities – including perhaps Albany and Newburgh in Orange County – could be candidates for rent control.
In many communities, he said, there is a “crisis now and a crisis looming” in which tenants’ wages are not growing but landlords keep raising rents.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz is a Brooklyn Democrat whose post as Assembly Housing Committee chairman makes him a key player in the rent debates. Like Breslin, he sought to tamp down fears of a top-down approach in which Albany creates new statewide edicts for local housing matters.
“We’re not forcing anything on anyone,’’ Cymbrowitz said. “If there’s no emergency, then you cannot do this,’’ he added of the rule allowing rent control only in communities with a vacancy rate under 5%.
“It’s an opt-in for localities … and it could be modified to suit the local community,’’ he added of local boards that would be created to run a rent control program in a locality.
Rent control comes to Buffalo?
On the surface, it would appear that the City of Buffalo could be ripe for a rent control system under the terms of legislation being considered at the Capitol. City officials are telling some lawmakers that the current rental vacancy rate is about 2% – well under the 5% ceiling in the bill by Breslin and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat.
City officials could not confirm that number. The issue has also not risen to the attention of a number of local officials, including Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who said he didn’t immediately know enough about the bills’ details to comment on them.
“I wouldn’t say they are clamoring,’’ Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said of Buffalo officials’ interest in joining any possible state rent control system.
“I think the City of Buffalo should have an opportunity to do deliberations on it,’’ she said of rent control, especially for problems in some areas where people are being priced out of rental housing. “We want to make sure we’re not pushing people out,’’ she said.
Executives at several residential development firms did not return calls for comment on the bills pending at the Capitol.
But housing activists say Buffalo’s housing market is changing in ways that increase the need to protect tenants, especially lower income individuals. “Gentrification and slumlord issues are as big in Buffalo as anywhere in the state and we need this legislation as much as New York City does,’’ said John Washington, co-director of organizing at PUSH Buffalo.
Washington said he believes the pending bills in Albany will make it harder for landlords to ignore the upkeep of their apartments in Buffalo. “There’s enormous interest,’’ he said of the legislative fight underway at the Capitol between tenant groups and landlord interests.
“We’ve been fighting for a long time to move a lot of these ideas and principles at the city and county level. This is an opportunity to have the state remove that excuse by the county and city. … Now, there’s not going to be an excuse,’’ he said if the tenant-backed bills pass this session.
Asked if he has heard much vocal pushback from Buffalo area landlords, Kennedy, the state senator from the south side of Buffalo, said: “This has been largely a New York City-driven conversation.”