Albany Agenda

Newburgh to vote on rent stabilization amid New York’s legislative void on housing

The city would be the second upstate to opt in to rent stabilization, declaring a local housing emergency.

The Newburgh City Council is mulling whether to enact rent stabilization on large buildings.

The Newburgh City Council is mulling whether to enact rent stabilization on large buildings. Halbergman / Getty Images

The city of Newburgh is poised to declare a housing emergency in order to enact rent stabilization. If they vote to do so at a meeting Monday night, Newburgh will become the second upstate city after Kingston to opt into the state’s Emergency Tenant Protection Act, or ETPA. 

After the state Legislature failed to make meaningful progress on addressing housing affordability during the 2023 session, the move would be an encouraging sign for upstate tenant organizers who have urged municipalities to reign in rent prices for residents. The governor’s ambitious plan to build 800,000 new units through a combination of incentives and housing mandates failed to gain traction earlier this year. Progressives’ “good cause” eviction bill, which would have restricted evictions and limited rent increases, was also not passed, leaving municipalities to figure out housing on their own for now.

The state ETPA was first enacted in 1974 for suburban counties outside New York City and expanded to the rest of the state in 2019. It stipulates that cities can enact rent stabilization if their leaders declare a housing emergency and if the vacancy rate is less than 5% of eligible units. Rent stabilization would only apply to buildings with six or more units built prior to 1974.

Tenants speak out

Some thought that a Dec. 11 public hearing helped crystallize the urgency of ETPA adoption for Newburgh City Council members. “I think based on how they looked and what they said in a guarded way, I think the vote is looking very, very good,” said Daniel Atonna, political coordinator for the pro-rent stabilization group For the Many. “I think they saw the overwhelming public support for the opt-in during the public hearing.”

Monday’s vote will be the culmination of grassroots lobbying efforts from tenants and housing activists over the past year. Newburgh released the results of its vacancy study in November and found a 3.93% vacancy rate among the 738 units surveyed in the city, within the 5% eligibility limit for the ETPA. A new law signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul this weekend also places the onus on landlords to respond to vacancy surveys by considering a unit occupied if there is no response from an owner. In the past, vacancy studies have been criticized by landlords for that very practice. 

The hearing earlier this month saw dozens of Newburgh tenants tell the council they were having issues paying rent, often resorting to working several jobs or family assistance. 

Newburgh tenant Rebecca Ziegler said it was unfathomable to her that someone with her relatively privileged background: college educated, white and middle class – could barely survive financially due to rent. 

“I can’t afford to live in Newburgh because I make after tax $2400 a month,” Ziegler told the City Council, “My rent is $1300, my car payment is nearly $400, y’all know what you’re paying to Central Hudson, I’m paying that too. After all is said and done I’m lucky if I have $100 left over.”

She added, “My neighbors are worse off than I am, and I’m not doing good.”

Landlords fight back

Newburgh’s vacancy study saw the real estate lobby spring into action. Phone calls and text blasts saying “Higher Rents Could Come to Newburgh Tell Mayor Harvey and the City Council to Reject Rent Control,” were sent to residents. Hudson Valley Property Owners Association Executive Director Rich Lanzarone also spoke at last week's public hearing in an attempt to dissuade the council from opting into the ETPA. 

Landlords have traditionally argued that capping the cost of leases would make life worse, not better, for tenants. The money saved by renters, they say, is money they can't spend on maintenance and repairs for units.

Lanzarone said he plans to challenge the city if it opts in by calling their vacancy study into question, a tactic he tried in Kingston that is awaiting a state Appellate Court ruling. At the hearing, he handed council members a 19-page report that he said explained how they overstated the number of eligible units in Newburgh by 84, driving the vacancy rate down.

“When you do the correct math, the vacancy rate is 6.35%,” Lanzarone told City & State. “I don't know how they're going to take it. I'm sure they took that and went to their attorneys and looked at my 19-page report and said, ‘How would a judge view this if we decide to ignore this and go ahead anyway?’ So I guess we're going to find out next week.”

He said that based on Newburgh’s history of tenant-friendly legislation, like passing a local version of “good cause” eviction (which later died in court) in 2021, they would likely opt into the ETPA. 

Given the methodology used in Newburgh’s study, Atonna said he wasn’t worried about a possible legal challenge from landlords, calling their study “completely biased” and “completely unscientific.” 

“I think that can just be tossed out in court,” Atonna said. “I don't think any judge is going to take their thing seriously.” 

While Newburgh tenants await a final decision on rent control, they may be joined by other upstate cities in 2024. Poughkeepsie is preparing a vacancy study while Albany secured funding for one too. Ithaca and Rochester tenants are organizing around ETPA as well.