The rent protections passed by the newly Democratic State Senate are working.
This spring, New York State enacted the strongest tenant protections in a quarter century. Already, they have made a difference in the lives of thousands of New York City residents.
Since the law took effect in June, landlords have tried to evict at least 35,000 fewer tenants for nonpayment of rent than in the same period last year, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal.
What is it like to lose your home?
Several years ago, the owners of the largely rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment building where I lived decided to force out my neighbors and me to bring in higher-paying tenants. When falsely accusing us of not paying rent didn’t work, they tried construction harassment. Dust, laden with lead from the century-old building, filled the air. We lived without heat or hot water for weeks at a time, in the middle of the New York winter. Vermin, disturbed by the construction, were everywhere. One day, I came home to find that the staircase leading to my apartment was gone.
I had fallen in love in that apartment, and nursed a broken heart. I had toiled away in its dining room on sticky summer nights as a young freelancer. I had danced on its tar roof with my friends, and cooked with my roommates, and watched the Freedom Tower finally join the city skyline, looking on from my living room as it rose slowly into view.
My neighbors and I went to housing court, but without a lawyer, our efforts were futile. Eventually, nearly all of us moved out.
Until the new rent law this year, that was business as usual. Forcing tenants from rent-regulated apartments, which account for nearly half the apartments in the city, was good business.
Over several decades, laws meant to guarantee comfortable homes to working and middle class New Yorkers were reshaped to benefit the real estate industry instead. Building owners had powerful financial incentives to force tenants out of apartments.
Landlords were allowed to raise the rent by 20 percent each time a new tenant arrived. Once the rent reached a certain threshold — last year, $2,775 — the apartment was taken out of the rent stabilization system, letting landlords charge whatever the market would bear. Rents could also be permanently raised to pay for improvements, a system rife with fraud that also helped push rents over the stabilization threshold and into the open market.
Tenants challenging evictions and rent increases faced long odds in housing court, where they often represented themselves against high-powered lawyers arguing the case of building owners. New York City has increased funding for legal services to represent low-income New Yorkers in housing court, but the overall odds were still in the landlords’ favor.
Together, the rising rents and perverse incentives helped push hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from their homes and, too often, into shelters. Since 1994, more than 290,000 rent-regulated apartments have been converted into market-rate units.
The new legislation, known as the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, has removed these incentives, finally. Landlords are no longer allowed to raise the rent on regulated apartments by 20 percent each time a new tenant arrives, for example, and apartments remain regulated regardless of the monthly rent.
Housing court officials say it is too soon to tell what the long-term impact of the new law will be. But when State Senator Zellnor Myrie heard about The Journal’s report, he cried, filled with joy and relief.
“I’m walking home from my community board meeting in tears,” Mr. Myrie, one of the law’s lead sponsors, texted.
The news on evictions is a glimmer of hope in the city’s housing crisis and a reminder of the power of political activism and local elections.
The victory came after years of work by tenant organizers and others fighting back against politicians of both parties who did the bidding of the real estate industry, which provided them with a steady stream of campaign donations.
In last year’s Democratic primary elections, young activists defeated a group of eight renegade Democrats who had colluded with Republicans to protect real estate interests. Then, in November, New York voters handed Democrats a majority in the State Senate for the first time in years.
Mr. Myrie, a 33-year-old Democrat elected last year from Brooklyn, said he was driven to run for office by the experience of going to housing court with his immigrant mother and watching her fight to hold on to their rent-stabilized apartment.
“They tried to say that she hadn’t been paying her rent, but the truth was that she had been,” he said. “They were trying to get the rent-regulated tenants out of the building.”
This is the other side of New York’s much-celebrated 25-year real estate boom, the rise of a city out of reach of the middle class, the working class, young people and, above all, the poor.
Fixing the rent laws has kept thousands of rental units affordable.
Yet some 60,000 people are living in shelters, and one in 10 New York public school students is homeless. Nearly half of New Yorkers pay over 30 percent of their income on rent.
More housing needs to be built for people at lower incomes, and a city property tax system that burdens renters while asking less of the wealthiest needs to be reformed.
Most important, New Yorkers have to keep demanding that their elected officials represent them, not the real estate industry. They have to keep showing up at the polls.
Graphic: The New York Times.
Related articles on New York housing:
The Eviction Machine Churning through New York City
Albany Can Make History for Tenants