Rent Controls Come to Upstate New York – Again

The late Warren Anderson, the Republican majority leader of the New York State Senate from 1973 to 1988, had a favorite saying about rent control: He would never let “the cancer” spread north of Westchester County. Anderson must be spinning in his grave, because a central part of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 was expanding the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974, the state law governing the rent-stabilization system, to apply statewide. For 45 years, the ETPA applied only to New York City and the three surrounding counties of Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester. The HSTPA removes these arbitrary geographic restrictions. As of June 14, any city, town, or village in all of the state’s 62 counties can opt into the system.

In the three months since then, at least 16 municipalities north of Westchester County have begun the opt-in process. To qualify, the municipality must first determine that the net vacancy rate for housing that would be eligible for rent stabilization—buildings built before December 31, 1973 with six or more units—is 5 percent or less, the legal definition of a “housing emergency” under the ETPA. Once that determination is made, the municipality can opt into rent stabilization by a majority vote of its local legislature.

It looks as if Kingston, a city of about 24,000 people in Ulster County, will be the first upstate municipality to opt in. Kingston, 90 miles north of New York City and 60 miles south of Albany, has about 6,000 rental apartments. According to Alex Panagiotopoulos of the Kingston Tenants Union, about 1,200 apartments are already regulated under various government programs, and somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 would be eligible for rent stabilization. With strong support from Mayor Steve Noble, the Common Council voted to hire a consultant to conduct a vacancy survey. The survey is expected to begin in October and be finished sometime in December.

Panagiotopoulos said that E&M Management has recently bought up apartment complexes in Kingston, then hit tenants with large rent increases and refused to renew leases. Because there is no rent regulation, tenants are forced to move, so that E&M can move in more affluent renters.

With the help of the Mid-Hudson Democratic Socialists of America, the Kingston Tenants Union has been canvassing apartment buildings to enlist tenants in the campaign to lobby their legislators. “We’ve already canvassed the larger buildings, and now we’re starting on the smaller properties,” said Panagiotopoulos.

Six other Hudson Valley municipalities are somewhere in the pipeline: Beacon, Hudson, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Wappingers Falls, and New Paltz. The main cities upstate have also begun the process: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Utica, and Ithaca.

“Some places are farther along than others, and in most we are encountering a lot of opposition,” says Rebecca Garrard, statewide housing organizer with Citizen Action, who has been traveling all over the state for the last three months, offering organizational and technical assistance to local tenant groups. Citizen Action is collaborating closely with Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials from all parts of the country, and its New York State organizer, Chad Radock. (Brooklyn City Councilmember Brad Lander is national chair of Local Progress.)

New York State enacted statewide rent control for pre-1947 buildings in 1950, as the federal government was phasing out wartime price controls. The 1950 law covered virtually every rental unit in the state, but as early as 1953, the Legislature began to phase out upstate rent control, in some years decontrolling several counties at once. By 1971, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller forced the legislature to enact vacancy decontrol (which passed the GOP-controlled Senate by only one vote), not much was left. After 1972, when the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal ended rent protections for pre-1947 housing in Syracuse by administrative action, the only remaining rent-controlled units upstate were a couple thousand in the Buffalo and Albany areas, which were deregulated as their occupants moved out or died. In 2012, DHCR estimated that there was a grand total of five rent-controlled apartments left upstate; Westchester has perhaps about 100.

Expanding rent controls statewide is perhaps the most potent provision of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. It opens the possibility of changing politics in New York State on a permanent basis, and creating the infrastructure for a strong statewide tenant organization. It was only in the last two years that upstate tenants began pressuring their legislators to expand rent controls and tenant protections to cover them.

In the Legislature, rent has always been considered a New York City issue, even by legislators from the suburban counties covered by ETPA. This is no longer possible: Rent is now clearly a statewide issue.

Much credit for this victory goes to Sen. Neil Breslin of Albany, who introduced a statewide ETPA bill, and its Assembly sponsor, Kevin Cahill of Kingston. Breslin overcame obstruction within the Senate Democratic conference, including opposition from Housing Committee chair Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan-Brooklyn). In the Assembly, many upstate Democrats expressed opposition to expanding rent controls to their communities, even though some of them ended up voting for HSTPA.

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