Hochul Admin Sought Input on Tenant Protections — From Real Estate Lobby

In emails to the governor’s office, the Real Estate Board of New York proposed scaled back tenant protections for the state budget.

Sam Mellins   ·   June 30, 2023
REBNY provided “thoughts on potential tenant protections" to the Hochul administration, emails show. | Maia Hibbett

During state budget negotiations, the president of New York’s flagship real estate trade group emailed a three-item wishlist to several of Governor Kathy Hochul’s top advisors. Hochul’s secretary and top aide Karen Keogh had asked him to provide “thoughts on potential tenant protections,” he wrote, so he was following up.

James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, attached “a one page summary of ideas that will keep tenants in their homes” to the email, which was sent on April 12 to members of Hochul’s staff including Keogh, director of policy Micah Lasher, and housing commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas, according to documents obtained by New York Focus through a public records request.

Describing one of the three proposals, the memo stated: “We have draft legislative language we can share” — an apparent offer of an industry-written bill. It doesn’t appear that such legislation was ever introduced.

The proposals would create limits on some yearly rent increases, increase funding for free legal aid for tenants facing eviction, and add more judges to housing court.

Listed under the subject heading “Address price gouging,” the proposal to limit rent increases would have capped annual hikes at 10 percent per year — but only under specific market conditions laid out in New York’s price gouging law, such as declared housing emergencies. REBNY’s support for this measure has not previously been reported.

Neither REBNY nor Hochul’s office responded to multiple requests for comment.

Several real estate professionals reached by New York Focus were befuddled by the proposals.

The suggestion to boost legal representation options “doesn’t sound like something that REBNY would actually propose,” said Eric Benaim, president and CEO of the real estate agency Modern Spaces, a member of REBNY. He said the same of the price gouging legislation.

Matthew Lyman, president of the Schenectady-based corporation Ideal Legal Support Services, which provides legal assistance to landlords, said he disapproved of the proposal to add legal representation for tenants. “I’m not going to support just hiring, at state expense, more attorneys that would only be in court to represent tenants. That’s just going to delay every eviction process,” he said.

A prominent tenant organizer, on the other hand, said the proposals were laughably weak — and blasted the governor for soliciting them.

“I’m angry that the governor thinks that she needs REBNY’s sign-off to do anything on renter protections,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All, a tenants’ rights coalition. Neither Weaver nor her colleagues have been invited to meet with Hochul’s team since early in the governor’s tenure, she noted.

At the time that Whelan was in contact with Hochul’s staff, the legislature was considering a proposal known as “good cause eviction,” which would have gone further than REBNY’s price gouging proposal by limiting yearly rent increases in most apartments statewide and giving rent-paying tenants the right to renew their leases. Hochul opposes good cause eviction and threatened to veto it earlier this month if the legislature passed it. REBNY also opposes the measure, which it argues would discourage landlords from maintaining their properties and reduce the supply of affordable housing.

“I’m not going to support just hiring, at state expense, more attorneys that would only be in court to represent tenants. That’s just going to delay every eviction process.”

—Matthew Lyman, Ideal Legal Support Services

Whelan’s proposals sought to offer an alternative that would protect tenants “without eliminating an owner’s right to renew or place a permanent cap on rent growth (collectively referred to as ‘good cause eviction’),” he wrote.

Though the price gouging proposal was presented as a way to combat excessive rent increases, it’s unclear how significant the protections it offered would have been. The attorney general already has the authority to bring price gouging lawsuits against landlords in some areas of the state, but has no significant record of doing so. A spokesperson for Attorney General Letitia James said that recent price gouging lawsuits have focused on consumer items like eggs and cleaning products, and that he wasn’t aware of any instances that the attorney general had attempted to use price gouging laws to block residential rent increases.

James’s office is also already working on regulations that would make some rent hikes above 10 percent eligible for price gouging lawsuits. It’s not clear whether REBNY’s proposal would simply duplicate these regulations or go further, such as by empowering private citizens to contest rent increases on their own behalf.

Weaver said the proposal “wouldn’t make a difference to anybody,” since it would be difficult to enforce and would still allow landlords to effectively evict tenants by refusing to renew their leases.

“If the landlord is trying to raise the rent over 10 percent, and the tenant tries to enforce their rights, the next thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to be evicted,” she said. “This is trying to confuse legislators and give them an out to say they did something.”

The price gouging proposal also got a chilly reception from Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade group for landlords of rent stabilized buildings in New York City.

“By speeding up the court processes, a lot of the landlords who are either looking to evict or take back possession of their units can do it a lot quicker.”

—Eric Benaim, Modern Spaces

“We wouldn’t support something like that. It does not sound like the comprehensive solutions that need to be undertaken to solve New York’s housing shortage,” he said. He hadn’t heard of the proposal before New York Focus reached out with questions about it, he noted.

The other two policies included in the memo would have provided more lawyers to tenants facing eviction in housing court and added more judges to housing courts to “help speed cases along” in the heavily delayed system, per Whelan’s email.

A 2017 law greatly expanding low-income tenants’ access to free housing court lawyers in New York City has helped slash evictions, though far fewer tenants have gotten legal help than were supposed to under the law, which was billed as a “universal right to counsel.”

The REBNY email suggested expanding the program statewide, noting that it “could be launched as a pilot in more densely populated areas of the State or made permanent based upon allocated funding.”

It also suggested using law students to represent tenants facing eviction if using attorneys “is too expensive.”

“With a little bit of money and a supervising attorney, students can get clinical experience,” the document said.

This proposal amounted to a scaled back version of another bill pending in the legislature that would guarantee a lawyer to all tenants in eviction cases statewide and prevent cases from advancing unless tenants receive legal assistance. That bill is backed by a majority of Democrats in both houses of the state legislature, though it didn’t pass either house in this year’s legislative session.

For its third proposal, the REBNY memo also suggested adding 10 new judges to state housing courts to help move cases through the system faster. “Tenants facing eviction have lengthy wait times,” the memo said.

Legal proceedings in housing courts have faced significant delays since the pandemic-era eviction moratorium left the courts with a backlog of tens of thousands of cases. But it’s not clear what the proposal would do to protect tenants — the ostensible subject of Whelan’s email. Benaim, the real estate agency president, said he supports adding judges to address the delays.

“By speeding up the court processes, a lot of the landlords who are either looking to evict or take back possession of their units can do it a lot quicker,” Benaim said.

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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