New York's Notorious Landlords Are Finally Losing Some of Their Power

Renters in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world just won a huge victory.
Landlords just lost in New York.
Bankers and developers walk past union members to attend a gala hosted for an "affordable housing" developer on June 15, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Even amid a years-long national housing crisis, New York City's rental market has seemed especially cruel.

The average rent increased by 24 percent between 2009 and 2016, the number of new homes grew far slower than the number of people flocking to NYC, and the typical family earning between $10,000 and $20,000 paid upwards of 74 percent of their income on rent, according to a report issued last fall by the city comptroller Scott Stringer. "There's nothing at all sustainable about the way New York is evolving," said Joel Kotkin, a housing researcher and fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in California.


But this week, tenants in America's largest city—and New York State as a whole—appear to have won some historic relief. As the New York Times reported, state lawmakers agreed on a historic package of legislation Tuesday that would protect some rent-stabilized properties from rate hikes, bar landlords from certain predatory practices, and allow cities and towns outside the five boroughs to enact their own regulations around rent. If signed into law, as expected, the measures would mean New York tenants have some of the most powerful housing protections in the country, advocates said.

"It's stronger than anything anybody predicted going into this campaign," said Rebecca Garrard, a housing organizer with Citizen Action of New York, one of the organizations in the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, a coalition that advocated for the new housing policies. "It's a culmination of a multi-year, statewide movement that has accomplished fighting back [against] real estate lobby money."

The new deal is focused mostly on the urban populations in the state. In particular, it's centered on rent stabilization, a method of controlling rent increases, especially in buildings built before 1974 in New York City. The decision in Albany would bar landlords from their current practice of deregulating rent-stabilized apartments after rents hit a certain point so that they can charge market rates. And it would abolish the so-called vacancy bonus, wherein a landlord can hike up the rent after a tenant leaves a rent-stabilized apartment. This would protect some of the almost one million regulated apartments in the city.


"This sweeping legislation provides the strongest tenant protections since the rent laws were enacted decades ago," Democratic state senator Mike Gianaris of Queens said in a statement. His party's lawmakers heralded the housing protections not only as a win for tenants, but for the stronghold that the progressive left was erecting in the state.

But there was plenty lost in the compromise for those fighting toward what advocates call universal rent control—particularly senator Julia Salazar's "Good Cause Eviction Bill," which might have prevented landlords from evicting their tenants if they couldn't pay for rent increases that were more than 150 percent of the consumer price index. Still, as the Times noted, tenants should have more time to find legal representation or catch up on rent when facing possible eviction under the new regulations, and the package would slap new criminal penalties on landlords who strong-arm people out of their apartments.

Real estate firms criticized the move, which would impose restrictions on their growth. "This legislation fails to address the city’s housing crisis and will lead to disinvestment in the city's private-sector rental stock, consigning hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated tenants to living in buildings that are likely to fall into disrepair," read a statement from Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, a coalition of real estate firms.


For his part, Kotkin said the laws may indeed hurt small property owners attempting to pay for the management of older buildings in the city. But he said that as long as real estate developers were focused on luxury condos instead of affordable family housing, that tension would remain. "Rent control is what happens when everything fails," he said.

Meanwhile, the fight in New York could help spur along other housing legislation across the country. Advocates in other states, such as Colorado and Illinois, have been challenging state laws that restrict rent control, and hoping to provide new tenants protections as housing costs continue to escalate. And Garrard said the jubilant coalition in New York was ready to lead that movement.

"We really feel like it's just the beginning," she said. "This was not created for a one-year campaign."

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