Albany Agenda

Tenant advocates warn against watering down ‘good cause’ law

A coalition of upstate tenants, labor unions and community organizations are telling legislative leaders that “good cause” eviction must apply statewide.

Housing activists gather in Bryant Park to protest Gov. Kathy Hochul on Jan. 14, 2020.

Housing activists gather in Bryant Park to protest Gov. Kathy Hochul on Jan. 14, 2020. Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images

With discussions around housing policy starting back up in Albany, tenant advocates are concerned that their signature policy – “good cause” eviction, which prohibits eviction without cause and requires landlords to justify any rent increases above 3% – will be watered down as part of this year’s budget negotiations. Fears that the bill's language could be compromised in this year’s budget negotiations have housing advocates pushing back in earnest.

On Tuesday, a coalition of upstate tenants, labor unions, and community organizations sent a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie calling on them to support a universal version of the bill. 

“Good Cause Eviction must be universal for all of New York state and must protect all tenants, regardless of their landlord’s portfolio size, exempting only truly small landlords who live in the building with their tenants,” reads a copy of the letter, which was shared with City & State. “We firmly oppose a ‘swiss cheese’ Good Cause Eviction that would leave out countless numbers of renters across our state.”

Last year, there was some talk of passing a version of the bill that would not apply statewide but rather would only apply to those upstate municipalities that specifically opted in to the law. That compromise version of the bill would also have included more exemptions for small landlords. Tenant activist Michael McKee referenced this version in his testimony before the state Legislature at a joint budget hearing on housing, calling the changes “a loophole so big you could drive a truck through it.”

State Sen. Julia Salazar, the sponsor of the “good cause” eviction bill, told City & State that some lawmakers are already treating last year’s compromise version of the bill as a starting point. “To me this is unacceptable,” she said.

Salazar said that her bill already offers protections for landlords who occupy their own properties, but the real estate industry and some upstate lawmakers are still pushing back against the bill. “There have been some efforts by real estate interests as well as legislators outside of New York City to try to change the bill,” she said. 

Salazar said that she will continue to fight for the original version of the bill, which would apply statewide. “I'll say as the sponsor of the bill, I won't accept a change to the law that compromises the integrity of ‘good cause’ eviction,” she said, adding that she is confident that as the housing crisis continues to worsen, lawmakers will eventually pull together to get “good cause” over the finish line in its original form.

Lawmakers have struggled to pass housing policy even as the number of evictions and the cost of leases has skyrocketed. During last year’s budget negotiations, the Legislature attempted to find a compromise between Hochul’s build-first approach and progressives’ focus on tenant protections like the “good cause” eviction bill.

Assembly Member Kenny Burgos said that lawmakers understand the gravity of getting a housing deal done, although talks are very early, and leadership has agreed that tenant protections like “good cause” will need to be part of any deal. “The housing package will be the definition of compromise in my opinion,” Burgos wrote in a text message, though he added that specific tweaks have not yet been discussed.

Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, chair of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, told City & State that although a minority of lawmakers have signaled that they are open to weakening the “good cause” eviction bill, any such changes to the bill are likely to be a non-starter. “That might be where some quarters want to start,” Rosenthal said. “But that's not where the tenant advocates are.”

Recognition of upstate housing struggles has become more common as it becomes as difficult to find an affordable unit in Beacon as it is in Brooklyn. Some municipalities have attempted to address the issue through housing development, though generally on small scales, and legal remedies like the Emergency Tenant Protection Act or local versions of “good cause” eviction. But as towns across the state can attest, that route often leads to legal challenges from landlords, who complain that the regulations eliminate their ability to support themselves.

Last year, a state appellate court ruled that local versions of “good cause” eviction violated state law. Practically speaking, smaller cities have to go through sometimes complicated processes of local approval and even then, real estate interests could swing things against their favor.  

“While we have (identified) a pathway with certain cities like Poughkeepsie and Kingston,” progressive political action organization For the Many’s Political Director Brahvan Ranga said, “it would just be virtually impossible to pass these protections in the hundreds of other municipalities across upstate where the majority of tenants live.”