In a unanimous vote on Monday night the City of Newburgh became the latest upstate municipality to declare a housing emergency and opt into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act to stabilize rents. Joining others including the City of Kingston, Newburgh’s renters will see the cost of their leases stabilized, much to the chagrin of the real estate lobby which believes that increased supply, not cost control, is the answer to the housing crisis. Buoyed by upstate demand and these adoptions of the act, Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of groups representing tenants and New Yorkers who are homeless, is primed to expand the legislation further in 2024, with the goal of making even more buildings and units eligible for rent stabilization.
Following cheers from tenants and a contingent of organizers from political advocacy group For the Many and the Mid-Hudson Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey said he was happy for the city’s tenants.
“Congratulations to the City of Newburgh,” Harvey told a packed Newburgh City Hall Council Chamber. “Their voices have been heard.”
The act regulates the rate of rent increases in municipalities that opt-in. Before 2019, the legislation only applied to Nassau, Rockland and Westchester counties but was amended to include the whole state in the wake of pandemic-era housing chaos.
Over the next 30 days, Newburgh will create a nine-person Rent Guidelines Board according to the act’s regulations. It will include two tenant representatives, two landlord representatives and five members of the public with experience in finance, economics or housing. All will be Newburgh residents.
The state Legislature failed to come to an agreement in 2023 over housing. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to build 800,000 new units stalled as lawmakers balked at the idea of overriding local zoning codes. Good Cause Eviction, a bill that would restrict evictions unless there was a “good cause” died on the vine after local versions of the law, like the one in Newburgh, were also struck down in court. The act now comes as a possible lifeline for New Yorkers struggling to make their rent.
“The more places are opting in the the more clear the process becomes,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All. “It's easier to make it happen. I think it's really like dominoes will fall and then when that happens the more urgent it is that we revisit at the state level, some of the things that are like the basic facts about rent stabilization.”
Weaver said that the act as it stands now, which applies to all buildings with six or more units built before 1974, is outdated. She said details could be tweaked, like lowering the unit threshold from six to two and expanding eligible buildings to those built in 2000 or before.
Weaver added that rent stabilization wouldn’t go away in municipalities that adopt it. “Once you give people something it’s hard to take it back,” she said.
The New York State Association of Realtors failed to sway the City Council, starting an 11th-hour email campaign aimed at Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey and a text and phone call drive directed toward Newburgh residents.
NYSAR Director of Government Affairs Michael Kelly said that while they began putting pressure on the council late compared to the year of tenant organizing that led to the ETPA’s adoption, it was ultimately appropriate. He said their strategy to defeat its adoption going forward is to engage communities on a case-by-case basis.
“Each community has different housing challenges, and that I think is part of why the state legislature to date at least has said no to Governor Hochul's housing proposal,” said Kelly. “As I've read them, they believe that these types of housing decisions should be made at the local level.”
According to him, the New York State Association of REALTORS understands how serious the housing crisis is, but simply disagrees with housing advocates and organizers on how to solve it.
“The concerns that renters have as the rents go up, I don't dispute that at all,” Kelly said. “They are real and we have a lot of friends and family that are facing those increases. We just don't believe as an association that the solution to that is artificial intervention by the government in the housing space.”
Jon Beer, a Newburgh contractor and owner-occupier landlord, agreed that the act is an imperfect solution for struggling tenants. Beer said per the act, only being able to make three improvements to his property in a 15-year period and those repairs being limited to 1/180th of the property’s value, adoption is a flawed proposition. Although he is a contractor, he also wouldn’t be allowed to make those repairs according to regulations.
“That alone guarantees subpar housing for the tenants,” he said in an email.
Beer’s business partner and fellow contractor, Nadene Grey Speer, said that she and Beer actually support tenant-friendly legislation like Good Cause Eviction and that she thinks a rental increase cap of 5% is reasonable. Speer said that some tenants assume “landlords are rich” even though small landlords like her and Beer find that “at the end of the day we barely break even.”
“Some people are completely oblivious to all of this work going into their housing and the costs,” she added. “I had no idea when I was a renter, how would I?”
For the Many’s Newburgh community organizer Rene Meija and the tenants he pulled together worked for months before getting Newburgh to conduct a vacancy study. It found a 3.93% vacancy rate, under the 5% threshold and a crucial step towards adoption.
Meija said the housing victory came down to the City Council “seeing that the community was actually there, they were listening and they were watching.”
Poughkeepsie is being eyed by For the Many and Mid-Hudson DSA as the next city to adopt the act. The Dutchess County locale is in the process of finalizing its own vacancy study.
Smiling outside of City Hall following the vote Meija said, “Now we have a playbook.”
Correction: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the sequence of cities that have opted into the ETPA.