Albany Agenda

Back in the Capitol, lawmakers talk housing

They killed the governor’s housing plan last year, torpedoed her chief judge nomination and passed a late budget. What will lawmakers look forward to this year?

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins made opening remarks on Jan. 3.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins made opening remarks on Jan. 3. NYS Senate Media Services

State lawmakers made the trek back to Albany on Wednesday for the first day of the legislative session, where legislative leaders sought to set the tone for the year, highlight accomplishments from last year and preview the policy they may focus on. In both chambers, housing again emerged as a marquee issue.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke first, welcoming his members from both sides of the aisle back to the Capitol. He started his speech by touting successes from the past years related to building up the state’s economy, including boosting New York’s tech manufacturing industry, as well as measures to address affordability for families across the state.

It was in the vein of affordability that Heastie shifted his focus to the future – and housing. “On our path to making New York more affordable we need to ensure that housing is within reach for all,” Heastie said. “It is not an understatement to say that housing or, more importantly, the lack of affordable housing, is one of the biggest issues facing this state.” He went on to say that “all stakeholders” must come to the table to find solutions, before making a nod to new tenant protections as well. “We must build more affordable housing across the state but at the same time we must protect those in our existing housing stock,” Heastie said to applause. “We cannot afford not to act.” Last year, the Legislature apparently felt they could afford not to act. They did not follow through on the governor’s ambitious housing moonshot.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins struck a similar tone on the importance of addressing housing this year, calling it “the most significant cost burden” facing New Yorkers. Her words were even more explicit than Heastie’s in referencing specific tenant protections. “It's time for us to develop a comprehensive plan that not only protects tenants, including the principles of ‘good cause’ … but also paves the way for the construction of new affordable housing,” Stewart-Cousins said, referencing a controversial bill that would restrict evictions and rent increases on market-rate housing in the state.

Legislative leaders seem to be gearing up for a fight similar to last year with Gov. Kathy Hochul, when disagreements on the inclusion of new tenant protections emerged as one of the major sticking points in coming to an agreement on a housing deal. Hochul has largely remained tight-lipped about the specifics of her housing plan this year after last year’s failures, but she indicated on Tuesday she doesn’t plan to include tenant protections in her plan. “We are approaching this once again, and hoping that the Legislature will work with us again, to focus on supply,” Hochul told reporters at an unrelated press conference. “We build more supply, prices go down.”

The legislative leaders touched on other priorities their chambers will have this year, including continued protection of reproductive rights, ensuring public schools remain fully funded and meeting the state’s lofty environmental goals.

In an interview with City & State shortly after session ended for the day, state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris said that the “big issue left on the table is housing.” He added that legislators have “a lot of work to do,” in the 2024 session. Passing an on-time budget after last year’s was over a month late is sure to be one of them, but Gianaris also said it was too early to be sure about the level of unity between Hochul and the Legislature, let alone kinks in the budgeting process. “We don’t even know what the budget’s proposing,” he said. 

Flocking to refreshments after they officially convened marked the start of the session, many rank-and-file lawmakers reflected on what they expected in the coming months. 

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie said that housing is just one part of the broader affordability crisis facing New Yorkers, something that should be the “number one, two and three” issue for lawmakers to tackle. Some of the political divisions and conflicting personalities that led to the collapse of Hochul’s housing deal still remain. “We have no choice but to come to a solution, that's what New Yorkers are expecting, so that's what we are going to be endeavoring to deliver,” Myrie said.

The interplay between the Legislature and Hochul will be integral to all bills but the more controversial a topic is the more it resembles a tug of war. State Sen. James Skoufis, who represents a suburban district that was resistant to Hochul’s housing plan, said debate was to be expected and “not a bad thing” as the Legislature works to resolve several issues facing New Yorkers. He called the Democratic Party a “big tent,” as the lawmakers he works with hail from all over the state. “I think the large majority of legislators desire to have that healthy debate and find compromise with the executive,” Skoufis said. 

Skoufis added that he was eager to see what the governor’s plans would be for housing after statements she made in December, signaling that she may not wait on a legislative solution to the crisis. “We can find our own solution to anything but at the end of the day solutions require the governor’s signature to be enacted into law,” he said. “There are times when the governor has more leverage, especially in the budget, there are times when the Legislature may find itself with more leverage and that’s part of a healthy democracy. And you’re trying to thread a needle and exert whatever influence that you have.” 

Talk of the budget also didn’t seem to inspire confidence among legislators as they prepare for the yearly negotiations that will soon begin in earnest. Few of the lawmakers City & State spoke to were able to say with a straight face that there would be an on-time budget in 2024. 

“The right budget is more important than an on-time one but personally my wife's birthday is April 3 so I would really like to have the budget done by April 1,” Assembly Member Alex Bores said.

“I hope so,” Myrie said.

“I learned a long time ago not to predict whether we will have an on-time budget this year. Hope springs eternal though,” said Skoufis.