Every day, the New York housing market seems to unleash some new indignity on renters — bidding wars, 70 percent rent increases, long, sad lines to see small, sad walk-ups. If ever there were a moment to pass Good Cause Eviction in Albany — a bill that would protect tenants from excessive rent hikes and guarantee lease renewals or the right to remain to those in good standing — it would seem to be now. But the moment is slipping away. There are only a few days left in the legislative session, which ends on June 2, and despite having “this clear housing shortage, price gouging, and a really popular bill, we’re hitting a wall,” said Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All, the tenant group that has been leading the statewide push for the bill. It’s probably toast.
Earlier, it had seemed like Good Cause, which would restrict rent hikes to either 3 percent or 1.5 percent of the inflation rate, whichever is higher, and prevent landlords from denying lease renewals to tenants who’d faithfully abided by the terms of their leases (and the right to remain for those without traditional, yearlong leases), might actually pass this year. Sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar from Brooklyn and Assemblymember Pamela Hunt from Syracuse, Good Cause was first introduced as part of the 2019 rent laws. It didn’t pass with the rest, and afterward lawmakers’ priorities shifted. Then the pandemic came, putting the focus on more urgent housing matters, like eviction moratoriums and rent relief. This session, Democrats controlled the legislature, the market had fully rebounded (and then some) from its early pandemic slump, and that eviction moratorium was about to end, lessening concerns that the bill might burden already beleaguered landlords.
The State Senate held a public hearing in January, signaling that the bill might well move forward this year — “that was an indication that they were trying to get it done and passed,” said one observer — and on March 11 members of New York’s congressional delegation in Washington expressed support in a joint letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Though some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were left-leaning, that group also included moderates. A number of unions also lined up behind the bill, including 1199SEIU, which is close to assembly leadership. Good Cause laws also passed in several New York cities: Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Newburgh, and Albany (although in the latter landlords sued over the legislation), and similar laws exist in California, Oregon, and New Jersey, demonstrating that it would hardly be an unworkable policy.
The failure of the bill seems to be owed not to its popularity or its importance but, simply, to too many distractions, especially the ones that have legislators chasing their own jobs. “There are two things that are dominating everyone’s attention right now — redistricting and people needing to raise money for their reelection campaigns,” said one real-estate insider. “Nothing is moving right now, so I’d be shocked if something controversial and complicated moved, and Good Cause is both.” The shooting in Buffalo and the leaked Roe v. Wade decision, both of which legislators may feel call for some kind of urgent action, are likely to shunt complicated housing bills to the next legislative session. The 421-a tax abatement is about to expire, and it’s doubtful that Governor Kathy Hochul’s replacement program, known as 485-w, will pass. “There just isn’t enough time,” said the insider. “Both of those bills, they’re not going to pass as they are. They need to be amended and tweaked. People need to get in a room together, and that hasn’t happened. No one has been in a conference or meeting on this yet. On the 2019 rent laws, the senators involved were working on them pretty much all through May.” If the redistricting weren’t such a mess, he added, Good Cause might have had a chance, but redistricting sucked up all the attention in the room.
Legislators are also wary of taking a stand during election years. The real-estate industry has opposed Good Cause vociferously, portraying the bill as universal rent control and a socialist attempt to destroy property owners’ rights. Even the bill’s supporters admit that misconceptions are hurting the bill. “Landlords have this trauma around COVID, and they think this is just another bill that will prevent eviction of problem tenants,” said Anna Kelles, an Assemblymember who represents Tompkins County and parts of Cortland County and supports the bill. “All of us are working really hard to dispel that kind of misinformation. It’s about preventing unjustified rent hikes and non-renewals. We’ve seen rental costs go up 20 percent in Tompkins County this year, and in Ithaca [the county seat] 74 percent of households are renters. You have tenants who are absolutely fine tenants but have no increase in salary, and they’ve also had other costs go up. If they see a 20 percent increase in rent, they go from a completely stable household to a destabilized one.”
But while the proposition that good tenants should be able to stay in their homes with moderate annual rent increases has wide popular support, that hasn’t translated into legislative action. “It’s a hard bill, a really really hard bill,” said Weaver. “I think there’s this amorphous fear — doing anything transformative during an election year is scary. People in leadership are concerned with projecting the majority, and redistricting has meant they don’t have the capacity to pass a difficult bill right now.” In February, State Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins told Brian Lehrer that “I frankly don’t think the current iteration will be able to pass.” One Albany source said that leadership has not been putting it on the agenda simply because they’re unsure what to do. Neither Stewart-Cousins nor Heastie responded to requests for comment.
“The people pushing this bill have portrayed it as simple protections, but it’s much more than that,” said Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord group that opposes the bill. “I think a lot of lawmakers who may not have dealt with rent regulations before are wary. And while they compare it to laws like New Jersey’s, New Jersey does not have a rent cap. That optic has been a point of contention for suburban and upstate legislators.” Lawmakers have also expressed concerns that it could deter new rental housing construction (although that’s not a foregone conclusion), burden already backlogged housing courts (proponents point out that cases can’t be brought affirmatively by tenants, only in defense), or induce landlords to take higher increases than they might otherwise have so as not to fall behind, leading to a backlash from left-leaning voters. (Weaver said she’d only heard one state senator voice that concern.)
Could the governor get it done herself? A source familiar with the situation in Albany said that Hochul had “totally walked away from the table,” telling legislators that if they wanted the housing bills to pass, it was up to them to put something together. “I know the mayor’s folks have been trying to talk to her about a grand bargain on 421-a and she’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, you make it happen.’ Those are the vibes.”
Still, even if Good Cause doesn’t pass now, almost everyone believes that it could in the future. “I do not believe this bill is dead permanently,” said Martin. “I think next time there will be a robust discussion. I can tell you affordability in New York isn’t going to get any better unless we figure out how to get the zoning changed. And the zoning proposals all failed. Nothing really moved. I think housing will be red-hot next session.” At a press conference this week, Hochul said, in response to a New York Post reporter’s question about 421-a: “If it is not resolved in this session … we’ll certainly be revisiting this early next year as a priority … This is an important objective. But I don’t know that there is the interest in the legislative bodies at this time to get it through this year.” And Weaver thinks Good Cause still has a shot this week. “What’s more controversial?” she asked. “Doing something or doing nothing during a housing crisis?”