For four years, Vanessa Rivera lived in her Sunset Park apartment without incident. Coming out of a homeless shelter, Rivera said she was “desperate” to find a stable home for her two children.
At $1,800 a month and with a friendly building manager, the apartment was affordable enough to overlook annoyances like potentially being charged for a portion of another unit’s electricity.
Until, Rivera said, she called the manager out last spring for not telling her that the other unit had bed bugs.
A few days later, she received an eviction notice.
“I’m just wondering, why? Why am I being evicted? I pay rent every month,” Rivera, who is fighting the eviction in court, said in an interview. “He has given me no reason.”
Rivera’s is one of an estimated 1.5 million New York state households — 4 million people — whose leases would receive robust new protection under the Good Cause Eviction bill. The bill, first introduced in 2019, would make it illegal for landlords to evict tenants unless they violated the lease agreement, and places limits on how much a landlord can raise rents each year.
Now, the bill’s supporters believe this is the year that Good cause will pass, with progressive Democrats emboldened in the state legislature, Gov. Kathy Hochul making housing the centerpiece of her budget and frustration over spiking rents hitting every corner of the market.
“It’ll be a big part of our legislative agenda,” said Helen Schaub, the vice president of New York policy for 1199SEIU, an influential union that gave Hochul its endorsement, and organizing energy, during her tight gubernatorial race last year. “If everyone is talking about how do we make New York more affordable, legislators are going to react to constituents who are seeing huge jumps in their rent.”
Yet opponents of the bill — including the deep-pocketed real estate lobby — are digging in for a fight, claiming that Good Cause will hurt small property owners and lead landlords to take units off the market.
“The words ‘compromise’ and ‘Good Cause Eviction’ don't exist in the same sentence,” said Jan Lee, a Chinatown landlord and a member of Small Property Owners of New York, a volunteer-run group that is part of a real estate coalition opposing Good Cause.
More support than ever before
Much has changed for Good Cause, which failed to even come for a vote in the state legislature during the 2022 session. Democrats have been flexing their political muscle with Hochul, most prominently by blocking her nomination for judge to lead the state’s top court.
The Working Families Party, a progressive group that supports Good Cause, also saw its greatest electoral successes of 2022 in the state legislature, with endorsed candidates winning competitive races over both moderate Democrats in primaries and Republicans in November.
“We really think that there's a lot more support in the legislature than we have ever had before,” said Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a tenant advocacy coalition. “You even have the governor coming out and saying, like, ‘Housing is something we have to do this year.’ And the legislature, I think, is in a position to negotiate for Good Cause to be that thing.”
Last year, legislative leaders were mostly mum on Good Cause. As many in the Albany orbit noted in interviews, it was an election year with a strong Republican challenger for governor in Rep. Lee Zeldin. Some Democrats feel that they “don't want to rock the boat” with controversial laws in an election year, said state Sen. Julia Salazar, who sponsors Good Cause.
Yet in January, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader, spoke positively, if inconclusively, about the legislation.
“I understand what good cause eviction is about, and why people think it's important,” she said on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast, noting that New Jersey already has a similar law. “I know it's going to be part of this robust housing discussion that we all need to have and want to have.”
Representatives for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Hochul declined interview requests. Heastie, a spokesperson said in an email, is “committed to meaningful and sustainable solutions to our housing crisis. We will discuss all these issues with our members.”
Hochul has not included Good Cause in her own policy documents, and has focused much of her $227 billion budget proposal on zoning changes and new tax incentives to spur the creation of new housing — including a pledge to spur the development of 800,000 new homes over the next decade.
“The future of our state will be hinging on whether we can meet the need, meet the demand right now," she told reporters Monday.
Under its current language, Good Cause would likely transform the housing market in favor of tenants, giving renters in market-rate units close to a legal right to remain in their homes if they don’t break the lease and can afford limited lease increases.
The legislation, Salazar said, “definitely advantages tenants because currently, under the law, tenants are disadvantaged in these situations, [and] really don't have any leverage if they're not rent-regulated in some way, if the property owner wants to raise the rent.”
Good Cause would apply everywhere except owner-occupied buildings with three or fewer units. Landlords would have to offer a new lease except where tenants failed to pay rent, violated their lease, allowed a “nuisance” or illegal activity, or if the landlord wanted to have a relative take the unit over.
Rent increases would also be capped on market-rate units, unlike now, at the greater of either 3% of the previous rent or one-and-a-half times the local rate of inflation, as measured by the federal government’s Consumer Price Index in August of the previous year. Because the index changes with inflation, currently, in New York City, the legislation would allow rent hikes up to just under 10%.
Judith Goldiner, the attorney-in-charge of the civil law reform unit at The Legal Aid Society, said the rent limits are a “common sense” solution to the year of substantial lease jumps the city just saw. One analysis, from StreetEasy, showed that median one-bedroom rents in 2022 hit $3,267 in August, up 20% from 2019; two-bedroom rents grew up 27% in the same period.
The legislation differs from rent stabilization, Goldiner added, because while it creates an upper limit on most lease renewals, landlords will be able to petition housing court judges to let them raise rents beyond the inflation limit if they have substantial expenses.
“This is much more of an individualized assessment between the landlord and the tenant,” Goldiner said.
(Legal Aid is representing Rivera in her eviction case; Goldiner is not Rivera's attorney.)
Good Cause would also likely set caps on rent increases in between what has been allowed for rent-stabilized units and what the historical trend has been for market-rate units.
For rent-stabilized units — which would not be covered under Good Cause legislation — the allowable yearly increase in rents is set by the Rental Guidelines Board. Between 1999 and 2021, a hypothetical rent-stabilized unit with a starting rent of $1,000 would have seen its rent increase about 68%, to $1,680.38, according to an analysis of New York City rents by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy shared with NY1.
If that same unit were instead market-rate, without the caps imposed by rent stabilization, its rent would have increased by more than double that rate: 130.65%, to $2,306.50.
Under Good Cause, the same $1,000 unit would have seen its rent grow to $2,111.52 — an increase of 111%.
'If we leave Chinatown'
Yet the gap between how much rent has actually increased in the city, and what would be allowed under Good Cause, has led skeptics of the legislation to question whether it meets the costs of building ownership in the city: Will landlords, particularly those who own less than a few buildings, be able to cover rising taxes and the costs of maintenance and renovations?
“You can't just cover operating costs. You have to provide enough return that people can invest in a boiler or fix the roof,” said Vicki Been, the Furman Center’s faculty director and a former housing commissioner and deputy mayor of the city.
Been said she is further concerned that the legislation could make being a landlord a financially infeasible operation, and lead to units being taken off the market, creating another dimension to the city’s housing crisis.
“I’d be careful about saying, ‘It's good for renters,’” Been said. “It’s good for existing renters.”
Lee, the Chinatown landlord whose family owns two tenement buildings, said that he and other small landlords see Good Cause as something of an existential threat. It won’t permit rents that cover their costs, he said, let alone allow them to use their properties to build generational wealth.
The lack of flexibility in price-setting, he said, will drive away ethnic property owners who have owned, and maintained, buildings in neighborhoods across the city where larger real estate groups did not invest until recently.
“If we leave Chinatown, we get taken over not by Chinese families, we get taken over by corporate entities that are faceless, and soulless, and nobody knows who they are,” Lee said, adding, “What is Harlem if there is no more Black owners? What is Chinatown if there's no more Chinese owners?”