Did Landlord Legislators Doom New York’s Housing Hopes?

Democratic lawmakers who rent their homes are far more likely to back tenant protections and new housing supply than those who own, a New York Focus analysis found.

Sam Mellins and Peter Tomao   ·   June 13, 2023
Landlord handing off the keys in front of the New York State Capitol
Democratic lawmakers who don’t own homes are nearly twice as likely to back good cause eviction as those who do. | Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

When lawmakers left Albany for the year last week, they walked away without passing legislation to help New Yorkers afford housing. A last-minute effort to reach a deal collapsed, and with it, the chance to expand protections for renters or grow the state’s supply of homes.

New York Democrats agree that the rent is too high. So why didn’t they do anything to bring it down?

One reason may be because most of them are personally insulated from the rent crisis. A New York Focus analysis found that legislators who are homeowners or landlords are much less likely to sponsor a proposed law known as “good cause eviction” than their colleagues who rent. The top priority of the state tenant movement, the policy would limit yearly rent increases and prevent landlords from evicting tenants who haven’t violated their leases.

New York Focus reviewed financial disclosures, county mortgage records, real estate databases, and Board of Elections data to determine which legislators own property. Legislators who own investment property or whose spouses own property were classified as homeowners. Legislators who do not own property and whose spouses do not own property were classified as renters, though some may live with family members.

Seventy-two percent of Democratic state lawmakers own property, compared to 54 percent of their constituents. (New York has the lowest homeownership rate of any state.) Democratic lawmakers who don’t own homes are nearly twice as likely to back the law as those who do: 85 percent of the party’s legislators who rent backed the law, compared to just 44 percent of those who own.

Senator John Liu, a homeowner who supports good cause eviction but has called to narrow its scope, said those numbers don’t surprise him. “If you’re a tenant and you become a legislator, it’s natural that you will understand the difficulty of being a tenant and be more appreciative of some of those challenges. The same goes for a homeowner legislator,” he said.

It’s not just a city-versus-upstate divide. Even among legislators who represent New York City, renters are far more likely to sponsor good cause eviction than owners.

Harlem Assemblymember Inez Dickens, for example, has multi-million dollar real estate holdings in three small apartment buildings in her district. A partial owner, Dickens has shares of the buildings worth about $2.5 million, according to city records and her financial disclosure form. Though there are few currently open violations on her properties, poor conditions led the city to slap Dickens’s buildings with nearly 200 violations and her tenants to declare a rent strike in 2014.

In a statement, Dickens’s spokesperson Lermond Mayes said that good cause eviction “is extraordinarily dangerous to housing of all sizes” and would “prohibit landlords of all property sizes from making necessary repairs and upgrades to their apartments due to ever-increasing operating expenses.” He didn’t comment on Dickens’s property holdings.

Cea Weaver, who coordinates Housing Justice for All, a tenant organization that has led the push for good cause eviction, said the opposition of propertied legislators points to a broader problem. “We have created a system where everybody’s end of life care and wealth is dependent on property values continuing to rise, and good cause lightly limits property values,” she said.

The final version of the measure may also reflect the strength of property owners in the legislature — and particularly the more than three dozen Democratic legislators who are landlords. Before the housing deal’s collapse last week, good cause eviction supporters had rallied just enough support to pass a scaled back version of it, said Senator Julia Salazar, the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, and two other legislative sources. That version would have exempted landlords who own co-ops or a small number of units — letting more than a dozen legislators who own small amounts of property escape its regulations.

“It was going to be [an] extremely close vote but everyone was willing to compromise,” said a source close to legislative leadership.

Governor Kathy Hochul privately threatened to veto the package if it included good cause eviction, The New York Times reported and sources told New York Focus. Salazar said the legislature should have passed it anyway.

“We are a coequal branch of government and the governor threatening to veto a bill is not a good reason to fail to print and pass a bill,” she said on Monday via text. She called on the legislature to return to Albany in a special session to pass a housing package this year.

The source close to legislative leadership told New York Focus that leaders believed sending the bill to Hochul’s desk for a veto would make it harder to pass in future years.

Homeowning legislators may have played a role in sinking this year’s other big housing plan, too. Earlier in the legislative session, Hochul’s landmark housing proposal dissolved amid opposition from legislators, particularly in the Assembly. Dubbed the New York Housing Compact, the centerpiece of the governor’s agenda sought to double housing production, including by overriding some towns’ restrictive zoning laws.

Most Democratic legislators didn’t express public opinions on Hochul’s plan. But as with good cause eviction, of the ones who did, property-owning legislators disproportionately opposed the compact while renters disproportionately supported it.

Ben Carlos Thypin, a real estate broker and co-founder of the pro-development group Open New York, supplied New York Focus with a list of 34 Democratic legislators who have publicly opposed the compact. (Thypin does not currently have a leadership role with Open New York, and conducted the research in a personal capacity.)

With one exception, New York Focus found, the compact opponents all own property.

“I have been working vigorously behind the scenes to ensure that any policy that would have overridden local control was not included in the final budget,” said Democratic Assemblymember Gina Silitti, a Long Island homeowner, in an email to constituents on May 2. “I’m glad to say we achieved that.”

Thypin also found public statements from 16 Albany Democrats supporting the compact. Half owned homes — a rate lower than the seven in 10 Democratic legislators who are owners overall.

One notable example of a landlord-legislator who opposed both the compact and good cause eviction is Westchester Assemblymember Amy Paulin, who lives in a 5,000-square-foot home in Scarsdale. According to her most recent financial disclosures, Paulin’s husband has partial ownership of nearly 200 apartments in New York City, mostly in Harlem, from which he collected up to $80,000 in rental income in 2021. Paulin has been a vocal critic of both good cause eviction and Hochul’s proposals to create more housing.

Over 40 tenants in her husband’s buildings have faced eviction filings in the past two years, and the buildings have over 120 open violations of the housing code, including vermin infestations, defective fireproof doors, and an uncapped gas line. His New York properties are just a slice of his real estate holdings: He also owns part of over 1,400 apartments outside of New York, as well as several commercial properties in New York and other states. One of the co-owners of his New York apartments is Mark Scharfman, a notorious landlord who has repeatedly earned media coverage for maltreating tenants and illegally removing apartments from rent regulation.

Paulin’s office declined to comment.

The compact also would have eliminated a New York City-specific law capping the maximum floor space of new housing. In March, four New York City Democrats — Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymembers Deborah Glick, Grace Lee, and Jo Anne Simon — rallied in defense of the cap, arguing that its repeal would be a giveaway to luxury real estate developers.

“I do not subscribe to the notion that if you just build, build, build, it reduces the pressure and therefore rents come down. I think that is a false narrative put out by the real estate industry,” Glick told New York Focus. Krueger, Lee, and Simon did not respond to requests for comment.

All four own homes in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, three of which are worth at least $2 million. Simon is also a landlord: Her most recent financial disclosure forms show that she and her husband own a rental unit in Boerum Hill, for which they received at least $50,000 in rental income in 2021.

Glick denied any connection between legislators’ personal housing status and their policy positions. “I have not seen that as the dispositive issue at all,” she said. “That sounds like someone who doesn’t really have their finger on the pulse.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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