As a lifelong civil rights advocate and proud New Yorker, I understand firsthand the importance of affordable housing and the necessity for robust tenant protections in our communities.
While major housing-related provisions were notably absent from this year's state budget, this moment presents an opportunity for our legislative leaders to adopt the appropriate measures to address this urgent issue before the legislative session ends in June. To truly make a difference, we must focus on evidence-based solutions that safeguard New Yorkers and reject proposals that would prove counterproductive.
Above all, our leaders should support two proposed measures: a Statewide Right to Counsel program and the Housing Access Voucher program. Together, these programs will address the immediate needs of New York’s vulnerable tenants while providing long-term solutions to housing insecurity. At the same time, lawmakers should continue rejecting the proposed Good Cause Eviction bill, which would create a myriad of unintended consequences across the state.
We already have the data to show that Right to Counsel works. A recent report by the New York City Office of Civil Justice found that the city's Right to Counsel program helped 84% of represented tenants stay in their homes. Although New York boasts some of the nation’s strongest tenant protections, this program would extend these rights by ensuring that every tenant statewide has the right to free legal representation in housing court. In turn, this measure would significantly reduce evictions and offer vital support to New Yorkers grappling with housing insecurity.
In tandem, the Housing Access Voucher Program would deliver immediate assistance to New Yorkers struggling to pay rent. Notably, during the pandemic, vouchers proved instrumental in helping keep tens of thousands of New Yorkers housed, especially in Black and brown communities disproportionately impacted by the crisis.
The dire reality of over 74,000 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness on any given night across the state demands urgent and resolute action. HAVP would provide pathways out of the shelters and off the streets for these individuals through a variety of means, including direct monetary assistance to secure permanent housing and resources to prevent others from losing it in the first place.
Conversely, Good Cause Eviction would do nothing to help New Yorkers struggling with housing. In fact, it would do the opposite by creating numerous harmful unintended consequences.
First, this bill would offer no protection for tenants facing eviction for nonpayment, which accounted for over 80% of eviction filings statewide in the past five years.
Second, supporters of the bill cite legislation in New Jersey and other states as evidence of its viability in New York; however, this comparison is flawed. For example, unlike the New Jersey law, the Albany bill imposes arbitrary rent caps that ignore increasing operational costs. This approach would undermine the ability to maintain New York’s existing housing stock and hinder the creation of new housing, which we all agree is desperately needed.
I have been a renter in Harlem for the past 26 years. I moved to Roslyn in 1956 to fight housing discrimination, and I took successful legal action to become the very first Black tenant in the Roslyn Gardens apartment complex in the late 1960s. Fighting for tenants is in my DNA.
Additionally, as a Black woman born in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era, I am intimately familiar with the many challenges and struggles facing Black renters and homeowners. For this reason, I am deeply troubled to see that the debate around Good Cause Eviction has reached a point where Black, brown, and other minority voices are being dismissed or ignored altogether.
Tens of thousands of small property owners would be crushed by the Good Cause Eviction bill. Many of these property owners poured their life’s savings into modest properties with dreams of building generational wealth for their families and have long been struggling to make ends meet. The bill’s arbitrary rent caps would impose significant new burdens, forcing many to file for bankruptcy or sell their properties to deep-pocketed, speculative investors.
As a longtime civil rights leader, I understand how minority communities have been disproportionately affected by housing insecurity, and how the deck has historically been stacked against us. State lawmakers must vigorously address these disparities and their consequences. However, we must prioritize policies that offer real, long-term solutions to these systemic issues – not those that exacerbate them.
The Housing Access Voucher Program and a Statewide Right to Counsel Program offer real opportunities to rectify these injustices and make a real difference in the lives of tenants. Good Cause Eviction, however, would only inflict further damage on our communities. Lawmakers must champion the former while decisively rejecting the latter.
With the right policies in place, we can safeguard renters, support small-property owners, and foster a fairer, more equitable housing landscape for all New Yorkers. Our lawmakers must seize this opportunity to prioritize evidence-based solutions that will make a lasting, positive impact on housing security and affordability in our state.
Hazel Dukes is President of the NAACP New York State Conference and a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors.