New York reaches major deal to strengthen rent and tenant protections

Posted On Wed, June 12, 2019 By

Posted On Wed, June 12, 2019 By In affordable housing, Policy

Image by Jorbasa Fotografie / Flickr 

Democratic leaders in Albany announced Tuesday that an agreement has been reached on a package of bills that will significantly strengthen New York’s rent laws and tenant protections. As the New York Times reports, contained in the legislative package headed to both chambers for a vote this week are landmark changes to current rent regulations, which expire on June 15. The new legislation is meant to address concerns about the high cost of housing and the sweeping inequality that has resulted from it. To that end, as the Times explains, “the changes would abolish rules that let building owners deregulate apartments, close a series of loopholes that permit them to raise rents and allow some tenant protections to expand statewide.” These changes have long been opposed by the real estate industry, which lost some of its influence in Albany when its Republican allies became outnumbered in the State Senate in the November elections.

It has been this vehement opposition that has resulted in the erosion of tenant protections and the loss of tens of thousands of the city’s regulated units. The new and strengthened regulations represent a new playing field for the 2.4 million residents of the city’s nearly one million rent-regulated apartments.

A statewide tenants’ coalition has been insistent that lawmakers pass what is being called “universal rent control,” consisting of nine bills. Tuesday’s bill contains several of those proposals. The new rules abolish the practice of vacancy deregulation–in which landlords can charge market rents once a certain rent level has been reached–and the 20 percent “vacancy bonus” which allows the landlord to raise rent by 20 percent when the unit becomes vacant.

Provisions allowing landlords to raise rents on rent-regulated apartments based on renovations to apartments or buildings–a hotly debated and often-abused practice–would be revised to include inspections and audits by the state (not nixed completely as some have hoped). “Preferential rents” must be permanent, rather than subject to revocation at the landlord’s whim.

Rent regulation will be permitted outside of New York City and a few other localities for the first time; cities and towns throughout the state would be able to create their own regulations to limit rent increases and keep apartments affordable. And all of the above regulations will become permanent rather than bear expiration dates that allow them to be eroded as they have historically been.

One portion of housing activists’ platform missing from the deal is a “good cause” eviction bill that would have made it more difficult to evict tenants from most market-rate apartments, though the Legislature agreed that security deposits would be limited to a month’s rent and that tenants involved in eviction proceedings would have more time to secure legal aid.

The real estate industry has tenaciously lobbied against exactly these tenant protection laws, on the grounds that that such measures would de-incentivize landlords to make repairs and lead to the deterioration of the city’s housing stock; some argue that rent regulation of any kind helps drive up rent by keeping available housing off the market and causing a shortage.

Real estate trade organizations called the proposed legislation “an existential threat to building owners” via pricey ad campaigns, warning that the changes might bankrupt small landlords with prohibitive costs if they were unable to increase rents to meet them.

A coalition of four real estate groups, including Taxpayers for an Affordable New York and the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, said in a statement, “This legislation fails to address the city’s housing crisis and will lead to disinvestment in the city’s private sector rental stock consigning hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated tenants to living in buildings that are likely to fall into disrepair. This legislation will not create a single new affordable housing unit, improve the vacancy rate or improve enforcement against the few dishonest landlords who tend to dominate the headlines.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would sign any package of rent bills that was passed by the Legislature. The new deal was struck amid intense negotiations as activists demonstrated at the State Capitol last week in support of new rent laws, and fighting among Democrats heightened the tension as details were finalized. The legislative leaders behind the rent law changes said in their statement, “None of these historic new tenant protections would be possible without the fact that New York finally has a united Democratic Legislature.”

The Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, said in a joint statement, “These reforms give New Yorkers the strongest tenant protections in history. For too long, power has been tilted in favor of landlords and these measures finally restore equity and extend protections to tenants across the state.”

Tenant groups celebrated the legislative package as a victory, though not a complete one: Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, said “I think this is a huge win for the tenant movement that will impact the lives of millions of renters in a way that beats back the real estate industry, but we also feel we have a long way to go.”

[Via NYT]

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