Opinion: 'Good cause' is good policy

Not just for tenants but small property owners alike.

Supporting Good Cause eviction protections is not only good for tenants, but it’s also worthwhile for landlords, writes David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York.

Supporting Good Cause eviction protections is not only good for tenants, but it’s also worthwhile for landlords, writes David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My family has lived in New York for a long time. We have been renters, we have been homeowners, and we have been small landlords. Housing was never simple or easy in New York, but with homelessness and displacement on the rise, the situation today is uniquely dire.

Every day we see another story about evictions in New York City and New York state. A lot of the time they have to do with non-payment – rents are too high and wages are too low. But we also regularly see cases of no fault evictions: cases where the tenant has held up their side of the bargain, but the landlord wants them out. The 1.6 million families who don’t live in rent stabilized, subsidized or public housing have little legal recourse. If the landlord wants them out – whether because they want to charge another tenant an exorbitant amount, or because the tenant is organizing around building conditions, or because they’re discriminating against them – they can simply evict them without cause. 

It happens every day in New York City and across the state. Take the case of a formerly homeless family living in the Bronx who complained about dangerously poor conditions in their apartment, and the landlord responded with a no-fault eviction case. The Community Service Society’s own data has shown that such evictions are far more likely to happen in communities of color than predominantly white areas, and that low-income market-rate tenants are seeing exploding rents, declining conditions, and persistent eviction threats.

Albany is considering a bill that would offer housing security to millions of renters around the state: Good Cause eviction protections, sponsored by state Sen. Julia Salazar and Assembly Member Pamela Hunter. Good Cause would end most no-fault evictions and allow tenants to challenge unconscionable rent increases.

Some homeowners and small landlords have expressed concerns about this bill, including small operators in Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant and other historically African American neighborhoods. I want to address them directly and make the case that Good Cause is good for our communities, including tenants and homeowners alike.

Growing up, my parents owned our home and rented out an apartment to help pay the mortgage. This was an important source of economic security for our family, and also a source of affordable housing for our renters. We weren’t a charity, but we never raised our tenants’ rents by double digit percentages (let alone triple) in a single year, and we never evicted a tenant simply because we wanted them out. It’s just not how we – or most small landlords – ever operated.

It is, however, how many corporate landlords secure outsized profits, and we have more and more of them across our city and state. The average New York City landlord owns nearly 900 apartments – not exactly “mom and pop!”

Big operators pay big premiums to buy buildings from small landlords under the assumption that they can raise the rents dramatically and evict anyone who can’t pay. They also might evict so-called “trouble-making” tenants – renters who are reporting unsafe conditions or organizing their neighbors to fight for stronger tenant protections – as well as voucher-holders and anyone else they see as a threat to their profits. Landlords’ ability to do all of this drives up the purchase price of rental buildings, putting them entirely out of reach for middle-class African Americans and other people of color aiming to replicate the model my parents used to secure their own housing.

Good Cause could help arrest this trend, bringing home prices back in line with rents and curbing the speculation that is running rampant through our homeowner and renter communities. 

It’s also worth mentioning that landlords like my parents – or, for that matter, for the mayor of New York City – who own a small building and live there too, are not even covered by the bill as written. The law exempts owner-occupied buildings with less than four units. 

Good landlords already abide by these basic standards of decency. For them, nothing will change if the state passes Good Cause – except that the next time they hope to buy a building, they won’t be outbid by a speculator whose business plans are premised on displacing rent-paying tenants. Good Cause would help stabilize our overheated housing market, benefitting tenants, of course, but also prospective buyers who don’t have suitcases full of cash and plans for wholesale gentrification.

We can build more housing and offer more vouchers – and the Community Service Society supports both – but for any of that to be successful, tenants need the fundamental right to protection against displacement and rent gouging. Small property owners should stand with their renters and neighbors to establish this basic right.