Landlord Legislators Carved Themselves Out of Good Cause Eviction

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

Peter Tomao and Sam Mellins   ·   May 13, 2024
Albany State Capitol building with For Rent signs in the windows.
Dozens of lawmakers who own rental properties will benefit from the carveouts to good cause eviction that they put in place. | Maia Hibbett

When New York lawmakers passed the state budget last month, they included the tenant movement’s top priority: a law, known as good cause eviction, that will give many renters the right to renew their leases and shield them from hefty rent increases. But the law contains sweeping exceptions that will exempt many of the state’s landlords from its provisions — including dozens of lawmakers who are landlords themselves.

The law only applies in New York City, though towns and cities elsewhere can vote to opt in. It also exempts new housing for 30 years after it opens and landlords who own fewer than 10 units. The carve-outs mean that nearly three quarters of the 1.1 million market-rate rental homes in New York city will not be covered by the law, nor will any of the 1.1 million rental homes outside of New York City, almost all of which are market-rate, according to an analysis provided to New York Focus by the brokerage Quantierra, which tracks real estate portfolios.

“I think that we missed the mark on helping a majority of New Yorkers,” said Pamela Hunter, the Assembly sponsor of an original, broader version of good cause eviction.

Many legislators stand to benefit from the exemptions. Fifty-four lawmakers, representing a quarter of the legislature, own homes in New York other than their primary residences, a New York Focus analysis of financial disclosures found. Only two will be subject to the law. The rest, including powerful members like Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, will qualify for the small landlord exemption. A spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins declined to comment, and Peoples-Stokes’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Just seven of these “landlord legislators” would have been exempt from the law’s original version, which they disproportionately opposed. (The original version would have only excluded buildings of four units or fewer where the owner lived in one of those units.) The only legislators covered by the enacted law are Assemblymembers Amy Paulin, whose husband owns shares in nearly 200 Manhattan apartments, and Inez Dickens, who owns half of 31 apartments in Harlem. More than a dozen of the landlord legislators own properties through vehicles like LLCs, rather than under their own names, illustrating one difficulty with the small landlord exemption: It could be nearly impossible for tenants to verify what properties landlords actually own.

The final version of the law will allow covered tenants to ask housing court judges to block rent increases higher than 10 percent, or less in years when inflation is low.

Landlord legislators were sympathetic to arguments against the law, people on both sides of negotiations said.

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.

“At some point during the conversation, they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m a small landlord, too,’ or, ‘My parents have a two-family house and they have tenants,’” said Ann Korchak, president of Small Property Owners of New York, which lobbied against good cause eviction. “I think it was in solidarity. They got the challenging piece of it.”

“There were lawmakers who were pretty explicit about the fact that they themselves own rental properties and that influenced them to not want to support an expansion of tenant protections,” said Julia Salazar, the Senate sponsor of the original good cause eviction bill.

Both declined to name specific legislators.

Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh, who supported good cause eviction, said that the exemption for small portfolios “comes out of a pretty broad sympathy in Albany for small landlords.”

Almost half of New Yorkers are tenants, a rate higher than any other state’s. But only about a fifth of legislators rent their homes, fewer than the number who are landlords.

“This is a state of renters. And the state legislature does not reflect that,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All, the tenant coalition that led the charge for good cause eviction. “This version of good cause represents an old guard and just shows how out of touch certain members of the New York state legislature are.”

“Renters always have to fight an uphill battle to convince legislators to take them seriously,” said Samuel Stein, housing analyst at the Community Service Society. “As long as there’s that solid quarter of legislators that are rental property owners, there’s going to be pushback against universal tenant protections.”

Landlord legislators also helped to kill a more ambitious effort at housing legislation last year, disproportionately opposing both good cause eviction and Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature plan to boost housing growth around the state, a New York Focus analysis found at the time.

Hochul heralded the budget as “the most significant improvement in housing policy in three generations,” but its provisions to build more homes are far more modest than her housing plan from last year.

“Ultimately, this year’s budget does nothing to change the status quo that allows local governments absolute power to ban new homes,” said Annemarie Gray, executive director of the pro-development organization Open New York. “If this is a once-in-a-generation housing package, soon no one will be able to afford to live in New York.”

With good cause eviction now in place, albeit in limited form, renter-focused legislators and organizers are thinking about what comes next on the tenant agenda.

One priority is to elect more renters to the legislature, Weaver said — like Eon Huntley, who is running a housing-focused campaign in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to unseat Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman, a renter who has tussled with good cause supporters and supported narrowing the legislation to exclude small landlords.

Incumbents say that the new law gives them plenty of work to do back home. For Hunter, who represents Syracuse, that means pushing for her upstate district to opt into the law. For Senator Luis Sepúlveda, it means ensuring that landlords in his Bronx district, where 96 percent of people rent their homes, comply with the law’s provisions. For Salazar, it means encouraging organizing efforts among newly protected tenants.

“​​It’s been very rare to see unregulated renters organizing in opposition to something that their landlord is doing, because there were no real protections in the law against the landlord retaliating,” Salazar said. “If you’re covered by good cause eviction, that’s going to allow so many more tenants to organize, to form tenant associations, and to do so without fear.”

Correction: May 14, 2024 — This story previously identified Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman as a homeowner. In fact, she is a renter. 

Peter Tomao is a freelance author and researcher, who covers politics and housing in New York State. Prior to writing Pete worked in local and state government. He is a graduate of American University and the CUNY-Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
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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