Interviews & Profiles

‘Everybody’s watching:’ Brian Kavanagh talks housing and the NY budget

The Senate Housing Committee chair said he “certainly doesn’t need pressure” to find a compromise on housing.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh speaks at an affordability rally in 2023.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh speaks at an affordability rally in 2023. John Senter III/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

State Senate Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh and legislative leaders had a difficult task on their hands heading into this session. State lawmakers left the Capitol in 2023 without a housing deal and vowed not to leave in 2024 with the same result. So far, things appear to be trending in the right direction with reports emerging of progress on tenant protections and development schemes. That being said, there isn’t a deal in place yet. 

Kavanagh said that given the state of the housing crisis, he doesn’t need the additional pressure to put forth a housing package.

Lawmakers have been open to compromise on housing policy areas like “good cause” eviction and rent stabilization. There has been outcry from housing advocates who see rollbacks on current tenant protections and rent regulations as unacceptable, even if it means a deal is finally reached after last year’s collapse. 

Kavanagh and other state senators have done their best to keep a tight lid on negotiations between state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Kathy Hochul. However, what hasn’t been a secret is the shared desire to find a balance between protecting tenants and increasing New York’s housing stock. 

The state’s budget was nine days late when Kavanagh spoke to City & State for an interview on Wednesday, and he said there’s still work to do to find a housing compromise that everyone can agree on. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What can you tell me about this housing deal?

I mean, the basic parameters are still the same, the Senate put forth our one-house resolution about a month ago now and we're seeking strong tenant protections, funding in critical areas on capital programs and also to increase the housing stock and also rental assistance. There are a lot of moving parts, but we're still committed to trying to get a deal that really addresses the homelessness and the eviction crisis, as well as the need for additional supply.

What kind of pressure was there at the beginning of session to make sure that some kind of housing deal was reached?

I think all parties understand that this is a critical need and one of the most important functions of the state government to ensure that we have the proper incentives in place and we have the proper protections for renters as well as homeowners. I certainly don't need pressure to bring a comprehensive housing package to the table, but I think there's a lot of interest, and I think that the governor and the Assembly and the Senate have expressed a very strong desire to take big steps forward on housing. We had lots of conversations last year, both in the budget process and right down to the wire at the end of the session, and we've also done a lot of very big things in housing in the last few years. But clearly, over the last year, we haven't gotten to where we need to be, so I think everybody's watching. We understand that and all kinds of advocacy organizations are continuing to be in touch with us every day and be in the Capitol, put out statements and also mobilize their constituencies across the state. There certainly continues to be a lot of attention and a lot of helpful pressure to make sure that we act on this.

What's your reaction to the sort of disappointment coming from housing activists over what looks like changes to “good cause” eviction and rent stabilization regulations?

I think during negotiations like this, a lot of positions of the parties to the negotiations are floated, and people react and that's as it should be. If people hear bad ideas they should say what they're opposed to. I think these negotiations are by no means concluded and we're committed in the Senate to not accepting bad ideas, and so we're working through it, but it's a very tense moment for lots of people. I'd say people, property owners, as well as tenants, have expressed very strong views about some of the issues that are on the table. But we are fighting to make sure that we protect as many tenants with the strongest protections that we can enact and also to make sure that we have provisions in place that will permit construction and the many other dimensions to this. The Legislature has dramatically increased funding for legal services and other assistance for both tenants and homeowners in the last couple of years. Those are still things we need to fight for this year, and the basics of ensuring there's rental assistance available when people can't pay the rent or they're struggling such that they have to choose between basic needs and paying the rent are also really central to this. So if people think things are going badly or any of the parties are proposing things that they don't like, they react and I think that's appropriate. 

Some people have posited that throughout this entire process of looking at housing solutions, the real estate industry has been oversimplified, in that developers, trade unions and property owners don't necessarily want the same thing. Do you feel there's been a lumping together of these interests?

I’m not sure. I don't know who's lumping what. I will say there are obviously a very wide range of interests, property owners are not a unified interest. As you mentioned, there are people whose primary role in the real estate industry is to build new housing and there are people whose primary role is to manage existing housing. There are also enormous regional differences. The markets are really different in different parts of the state. The quality of the housing stock is different, the vacancy rates are different. Capital programs that work in some parts of the state may not work in other parts of the state. 

Certainly, New York City is an outlier in terms of using very large property tax breaks as a primary mechanism of incentivizing construction and affordability. Partly because the New York City tax system is different and property taxes are high on multifamily housing relative to other kinds of stock. So those particular differences, I think, cause different participants in the negotiations and in the industry to have different perspectives and different needs. They obviously do have these large umbrella groups like REBNY that try to represent each of those interests, but they are pretty distinct interests. So you can address one set of concerns without addressing other concerns or you can try to address all of them, but the fact that they're represented by the same umbrella group, I don't think should be a driver of what the right policy is.

Between inducing development via tax incentives and creating more tenant protections, which do you think is more crucial as we near the finish line?

It's like asking whether food or medicine are more important when you're sick. We can clearly address both of those things, and that's what the negotiations are about.

How do you think we got to a place where rent stabilization changes became like a real proposal?

The rent laws of 2019 were one of the most consequential pieces of legislation that's been passed in many years and it's the strongest piece of tenant protection legislation I would argue that's been passed anywhere in America in the last half century. Just because you pass a broad law doesn't mean you don’t revisit it. We most recently changed provisions of (the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act) in a bill the governor signed in December. So I think it's reasonable to think there's going to be ongoing conversations about how that law works.

The Senate expressed a willingness to make some adjustments on the individual apartment improvement provisions in our budget resolution because we picked a specific number in 2019, $15,000. And you know, if nothing else, there's been quite a bit of inflation in the last couple of years. So $15,000 in 2019 is a lower number in real value today, so we're willing to have that conversation. And for what it's worth, we were having some discussions about that in May and June, when it wasn't part of the budget process. But obviously, there are ways to make adjustments that make sense and there are ways to make radical changes that undermine the basic principles, and we're not willing to give up the really important gains that we made in 2019. 

Before 2019 there were enormous incentives for property owners to use the loopholes in the laws to very dramatically increase rents and make our communities less affordable. It was in all kinds of pretty well-documented signs that property owners were abusing the system and so we tightened it up very substantially and no one spent more time and energy into 2019 than I did getting that done. So I'm certainly not interested in undermining that very comprehensive set of reforms we made.

Who knows when the budget will be finalized but how far away is an agreement on a housing deal?

Albany has a funny way of sometimes moving very rapidly once you get close, but from my perspective, there are many issues that have yet to be resolved, that I think are important to resolve before we come to an agreement. 

Would you like to guess when the budget might pass?

I have no guess. My NCAA pool also didn't go well so I'm going to get out of the prediction game. I think everybody's anxious to get this done. We're all aware that we're well into a new fiscal year without a budget. We're obviously taking very important steps to make sure that workers aren't losing out on paychecks, that the state is paying its debts and its bills, but I don't have any way to predict when the negotiations will be resolved.