A Wave of Upstate Cities Could Ban Eviction Without “Good Cause”

Blocked at the state level, the campaign for “good cause eviction” is going local.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   July 16, 2021
"New York, which champions itself as a progressive bastion and leader, is actually so far behind on this." | Aiden Faiella

In June 2019, following a wave of progressive election victories and a months-long campaign by housing rights organizers, New York State passed its biggest expansion of tenant protections in decades. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Actclosed key loopholes in New York’s rent stabilization laws and extended them across the state, allowing cities to gradually opt in.

But for organizers, the 2019 law was missing a key component: “good cause eviction,” which would bar landlords from removing a tenant without justification. Two years later, despite a concerted campaign from organizers and progressive lawmakers, the policy is no closer to passing; the bill languished in committee in both the 2020 and 2021 sessions.

So organizers have shifted their efforts to the local level, backing a wave of new good cause bills in cities spanning from Albany to the Hudson Valley to Rochester and Buffalo. The first of those bills will likely come to a vote this summer, with Albany expected to vote next Monday. If they pass, advocates hope it will not only protect tenants in the short term, but also help bring good cause out of its rut at the state level.

“It’s really important for the state legislature to pay attention and realize that the mandate is not just coming from the tenant movement, but from local government bodies that are clearly indicating that these are protections that are needed for residents across New York State,” Rebecca Garrard, Albany-based legislative director at the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York, told New York Focus.

Good cause, also known as the “right to renew,” would bar most landlords from evicting tenants unless they can show a “good cause,” such as failure to pay rent or violation of other terms of the lease. It would require landlords to offer a renewal lease to tenants in good standing and prevent major, arbitrary rent hikes, which advocates say are often used to push tenants out.

Opponents say the policy would place an excessive burden on small landlords, and is unnecessary given that New York already has some of the strongest tenant protections in the country.

But organizers say the policy is designed precisely to protect the broad swath of tenants not covered by rent stabilization laws, which for now still apply almost exclusively to the New York City area.

A rally in May for good cause eviction in Albany. | Courtesy of Rebecca Garrard

“There is a massive housing crisis especially here in upstate New York, where there’s less regulation around rents and eviction,” Brahvan Ranga, political coordinator at the grassroots advocacy group Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, told New York Focus. “The state legislature failed to address this crisis. [So] activists and local leaders are taking matters into their own hands, to start to pave the way for the rest of the state.”

Statewide, roughly half of tenants are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to a 2019 report from the state comptroller’s office. One in four Black families and nearly one in three Latino families spend more than half of their income on rent. And nothing prevents landlords from raising their rents further when a lease expires — in many cases, leaving tenants with little choice but to leave.

Proponents hope that implementing the laws locally will swing reluctant state legislators who say their constituents don’t want policies like good cause, and convince skeptics that the policy isn’t as radical as opponents make it out to be.

“This is just common-sense legislation that allows for tenants to understand what their rights are and to have clear rules of the road for our tenants and our landlords,” Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan told New York Focus.

Albany: ‘Investment without displacement’

With Sheehan’s backing, Albany is expected to vote on a good cause bill this coming Monday, making it the first in a slew of cities to consider such legislation in the coming months.

The city’s Local Law F is the third and most contentious part of a package of fair housing bills unveiled this spring. The first two parts, which passed Albany’s Common Council unanimously in early July, tighten the requirements of the city’s rental registry and allow authorities to intervene directly to repair unsafe or unsound housing when a landlord fails to do so, with the landlord footing the bill.

Council member Alfredo Balarin, sponsor of the good cause bill and a landlord himself, said it’s important that eviction protections not be left out.

“It’s a package for a reason,” Balarin told New York Focus. “If a tenant asks for things to get repaired, and the landlord doesn’t make those repairs, and then they have to go to code enforcement… that’s going to create a situation where a landlord may want to push a tenant out, and that’s not what we want.”

Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at the advocacy coalition Housing Justice for All, agrees that the code enforcement and good cause bills go hand in hand.

“For us, good cause is the foundation of an investment-without-displacement platform for some of the distressed upstate New York cities,” she told New York Focus. “Right now, tenants have an interest in their landlord not making repairs because if they do, the rent will go up, or if they try to use code enforcement, they’ll be displaced. So people are just living in really, really unsafe living conditions and they’re stuck there.”

Good cause “creates a path” out of that situation, Weaver said, requiring landlords to justify not only evictions but also rent increases above a certain threshold — typically 5 percent — to a judge.

These provisions have drawn the ire of real estate groups such as the New York State Association of Realtors (NYSAR), which, along with the Albany-area Greater Capital Association of Realtors (GCAR), has lobbied extensively against the city’s good cause bill. The group has sent mailers and text blasts to Albany residents, launched a petition, and held meetings with council members directly.

Mayor Sheehan said she’s never seen this level of lobbying on a local Albany bill since she took office in 2014.

NYSAR did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The group’s campaign website against good cause argues that the policy will depress property values and hurt small landlords, “inviting large corporate landlords” to swoop in instead. The group also argues that good cause will discourage landlords from upgrading their properties, out of fear that they won’t be able to recoup the costs from tenants.

“We’re concerned that this will encourage an exodus of mom-and-pop landlords in the city of Albany,” Laura Burns, CEO of GCAR, told New York Focus.

“We feel … there are enough provisions for tenants and that the landlords have not really been considered in all the actions that have been taken,” especially in the response to the pandemic, Burns said. She said the group’s campaign with NYSAR was designed to raise awareness among Albany residents, as property owners were outnumbered in local politics.

“Someone needs to speak up for the landlords,” Burns added.

Mailers and texts sent by the New York State Association of Realtors.

Those arguments have won over some residents. Councilmember Jack Flynn told New York Focus he has “received about 50/50 emails from constituents right now on [the] pros and cons of the legislation.”

“I’m not a fan of legislation where it’s 50/50 amongst people,” Flynn added.

Councilmember Thomas Hoey is also “torn.” He told New York Focus he had encountered more opposition than support for the bill, “would be “meeting with a realtor group” to hear its concerns, and was reluctant to vote on it now.

Still, supporters like Councilmember Owusu Anane are “confident” that the measure will pass, despite some initial skepticism among his colleagues.

“Quite frankly, they’re not used to being lobbied on any issue,” Anane said. He stresses that good cause will only affect the “bad actors” who have “no vested interest” in their properties besides collecting rents.

“If you’re a good landlord, this piece of legislation actually works in your favor, because it spells out reasoning to evict someone” if they’re breaking the rules, he said.

Balarin, the bill sponsor, who is a member of GCAR himself, said good cause won’t add any burden on landlords who are treating tenants fairly.

“There’s been some misinformation,” he said. “People have used certain parts of the bill to try to create fear among those who are doing the right thing.”

Hudson Valley: ‘There’s absolutely no place to live’

In cities like Albany, lawmakers note that one of the main aims of the larger fair housing package is to combat blight, as landlords often allow properties in low-income neighborhoods to fall into disrepair and, eventually, go vacant.

In much of the Hudson Valley, tenants are facing the flip side of that equation: rapid gentrification, fueled in part by New York City residents fleeing north.

“Housing prices here in Columbia and Greene counties have just gone through the roof,” said Michael Gattine-Suarez, Hudson-based managing director of the Hudson-Catskill Housing Coalition.

From 2019 to 2020, the city of Hudson saw the greatest spike in in-migration of any metro area in the country, according to a recent New York Times survey. Kingston, about thirty miles south, ranks second. And prices are continuing to climb: a recent report by Pattern for Progress, a Newburgh-based research group, found that median home prices increased by an average of 23 percent across the Hudson Valley from early 2020 to early 2021, with no sign of letting up.

In Greene County, just across the river from Hudson, the most recent data published by NYSAR shows a more than 70 percent increase in median home values from the same time last year.

“With that comes speculative investors, who are just buying homes here in the Hudson Valley … to make a quick buck,” Gattine-Suarez told New York Focus. He said some landlords have sought to raise rents by as much as double when leases expire, and that without any kind of rent stabilization system in place, “there are no checks and balances.”

Gattine-Suarez has felt the consequences first hand. Originally from Brooklyn, he moved with his family to Poughkeepsie, then Kingston, and finally Hudson two years ago as rising rents chased him from one city to the next.

“Literally since birth, I’ve experienced this,” he said. He’s working with local lawmakers to craft a bill that would mirror the fair housing package in Albany, and hopes it could pass as soon as September.

Tiffany Garriga, Democratic majority leader on Hudson’s city council, said the bill would prevent tenants from being “bullied out of their homes for any kind of reason” and help combat the city’s accelerating housing crisis.

“People are getting priced out, bought out, and the outcome is that there’s no option. There’s nothing affordable,” Garriga told New York Focus. “We’re hitting a mark in the city where there’s absolutely no place to live.”

Garriga said some of her fellow councilmembers are “a little skeptical” of good cause, “but once they get a full understanding of the law, I think they will understand and see that it works for both sides.”

Ranga, of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, said it’s urgent that municipalities pass good cause as quickly as possible, to prevent vast numbers of people being pushed out of their homes after New York’s statewide, Covid-19 eviction moratorium expires on August 31.

A vigil organized by Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson for evicted tenants.

“There is a looming eviction catastrophe that is going to happen at the end of next month once the eviction moratorium expires,” Ranga told New York Focus. “Skyrocketing” rents across the Hudson Valley have only added to the pressure, with many tenants facing significant rent arrears.

Ranga and other advocates hope New Paltz, another popular Hudson Valley destination, will be next in line to pass good cause legislation after Albany. Alexandria Wojcik, deputy mayor of the Village of New Paltz — essentially, the city’s downtown and home to its SUNY campus — introduced a draft good cause bill on Wednesday.

“People are being de facto evicted and booted from the community … just because there aren’t these really necessary protections that, I think, have an emphasis on fostering communication,” Wojcik told New York Focus. She hopes her bill will come up for a vote in late August or early September, after a public comment period.

Ranga said organizers also have their sights on Beacon, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, and Newburgh, though campaigns in those cities have yet to get underway.

“We’re hoping the Village of New Paltz and the Albany campaigns are the first in a line of many municipalities across the area to enact this legislation,” he said.

From Ithaca to the Great Lakes

While each city faces its own specific challenges, the cities that housing rights organizers are concentrating their efforts on all have one thing in common: a majority of their residents are renters. In the Hudson Valley, Albany, and several counties in Western New York, half or more of those tenants are rent-burdened, according to the state comptroller’s office.

In Ithaca, the share of renters reaches nearly three quarters. That’s in part because the city is home to Cornell University, with its large, transient student population. But Ithaca is also home to long-time residents like Genevieve Rand, a service worker who said that, as a transgender woman, she has never been offered a renewal lease and has constantly been forced to move.

Now, she and other tenants are getting organized. The Ithaca Tenants Union, which formed just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, has devoted much of its efforts so far to what Rand calls “emergency cancel rent organizing.” As the pandemic eases, the group is shifting toward more long-term work, and this week launched a good cause eviction campaign.

Ithaca city councilmember Ducson Nguyen said he hopes to see the draft billintroduced this month, which would give it a good chance of coming to a vote before the end of the year.

Nguyen, who grew up in New Jersey, points out that his home state has had a good cause eviction law on the books since the 1970s, “and the rental market has not collapsed.” (Garrard, of Citizen Action, said the New Jersey law served as the template for both the statewide and many of the local good cause bills currently being considered in New York.)

“We’re not even treading on terribly experimental ground here,” Nguyen said. “I think it’s tried and true, and is a reasonable protection that we should apply here.”

The push for local good cause is also rippling further west, to New York’s second- and third-largest cities of Buffalo and Rochester, after progressive challengers ousted incumbents at both the mayoral and city council levels in this June’s Democratic primaries. Socialist India Walton, the likely next mayor of Buffalo, and the largely successful People’s Slate for council in Rochester both ran on pro-tenant platforms, with good cause eviction high on the list.

“This good cause policy doesn’t require anything except political will,” Rochester Democratic city council nominee Kim Smith, of the People’s Slate, told New York Focus. “And given our numbers [of renters] in Rochester, we need it.”

Nearly two-thirds of residents in Rochester, the state’s third-largest city, are renters, and a majority are Black and Latino. The city’s households of color also face particularly unaffordable housing. Three in five are rent-burdened, according to a 2019 analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute — the highest rate of any city in the state.

A vigil organized by Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson for evicted tenants.

Smith, a statewide organizer with the advocacy group VOCAL-NY since 2017 and early member of the Housing Justice for All coalition, said that ending the cycle of precarious housing will be among her top priorities when Rochester’s new city council is seated in January.

“As we talk about people having stable housing, first we want to make sure that we are dealing with evictions and people not being homeless, so one of our first steps has to be good cause,” she said.

“A starting place”

Ultimately, Smith, like many of her fellow organizers, sees local efforts as “setting the bar for how equitable housing looks” across the state — and paving the way for tenant wins in the state legislature.

“The reality is we need systemic change, and we can’t win systemic change municipality by municipality,” said Garrard.

But she, like Weaver, warns that even statewide good cause would only be “a bare minimum first step” toward housing justice.

“The whole law is contingent on a tenant knowing about it and then actually fighting it in court if it’s violated,” Weaver said.

“That’s the irony of the whole thing. This is such a starting place for even attempting to have some sort of housing equity,” Garrard added. “New York, which champions itself as a progressive bastion and leader, is actually so far behind on this.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
Also filed in New York State

More counties are turning to private corporations to run medical care in jails. The companies have deadly track records.

Rebecca Lamorte was let go by her employer in June, prompting the Assembly Speaker to place an upset call to her boss.

For tenants in the first upstate city to adopt rent stabilization, benefiting from the law’s basic protections is an uphill battle.

Also filed in Housing

Advocates charge that New York’s restrictions for sex offense registrants are “vague, expansive, and unnecessary.” On Tuesday, they filed a federal lawsuit to strike them down.

A quarter of lawmakers in Albany are landlords. Almost none of them are covered by the most significant tenant protection law in years.

It’s the first step New York has taken to address its housing shortage in years — but tenant groups are fuming and real estate wants more.