What the 2019 Tenant Protection Act Means for Tenants

The historic package of new provisions in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 will provide both immediate and long-term relief to tenants both in New York City and around the state. While it incorporates much of the Housing Justice for All platform and many other important changes, more remains to be done in 2020, particularly a state law prohibiting eviction without “good cause.” The law has 15 sections, from A to O. Below is a brief description of what each one will mean for tenants. (In many cases, however, the courts will have to determine whether those new provisions apply to situations that existed before it went into effect on June 14.)

Section A. Makes rent regulations permanent. Until now, rent regulations were renewed for a fixed period of years, and would expire unless the Legislature passed a renewal law and the governor signed it before the June 15 deadline. That resulted in huge loopholes being created in 1997 and 2003. Making the laws permanent means tenants won’t have to depend on Albany to renew them, but it also means that tenants seeking stronger protections will have to lobby the legislature to enact them without the impending crisis of having the laws expire.

Section B. Repeals the 20 percent vacancy bonus and longevity increases. This ends the automatic 20 percent increase allowed on vacant apartments, with more permitted if the previous tenant had been there for eight or more years. That eliminates a huge financial incentive for landlords to displace tenants.

Section C. Prohibits the New York City Rent Guidelines Board from imposing increases abolished by the state. Those include extra increases for vacant apartments or those with low rents (which tenant activists dubbed the “poor tax”).

Section D. Repeals vacancy deregulation. The 1997 law allowed landlords to deregulate vacant apartments if the rent was more than $2,000 a month. While that threshold was increased to about $2,775 a month and, in 2015, restricted to apartments where the previous tenant was already paying more than the limit (no longer those where the landlord could raise the rent over it), this law led to tens of thousands of apartments being lost from the supply of affordable housing. Many of them were deregulated illegally. Tenants who move into rent-stabilized apartments will now get to keep those protections regardless of how much the rent is. This is not an issue that affects only wealthy tenants: For example, a family of four with an income of $60,000 a year might be spending more than half of their income on a $2,800 apartment.

Section E. Closes the “preferential rent” loophole. Landlords do not have to charge tenants the maximum rent the regulations allow. They can give discounts, termed “preferential rents.” Amendments to the rent laws in 2003 allowed owners to raise preferential rents to the legal maximum when the tenants’ lease came up renewal—increases that could be hundreds of dollars, forcing many lower income tenants to move out. The new law makes preferential-rent discounts last as long as that tenant lives there, subject to ordinary renewal increases.

Section F. Changes the “four-year rule” for looking at rent overcharges. The 1997 law limited how far the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) and the courts could look back when a tenant claimed their rent was illegally high to four years. State courts have since established some exceptions, such as in cases of fraud, but the new law extends the look-back period to six years. It also includes other changes that make it easier for tenants to challenge illegal rents and obtain rent reductions and treble damages.

Section G. Statewide ETPA option. Previously, only cities and towns in New York City, Westchester, Rockland, and Nassau counties could opt into rent stabilization under the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974. The new law gives local governments anywhere in the state that option—a big victory for tenant movements upstate and on Long Island.

Section H. Relief for rent-controlled tenants. This largely elderly and low-income population will no longer face possible 7.5 percent rent increases every year. Their increases will be based on the average of the last five years of RGB increases for rent-stabilized tenants.

Section I. Limits owner-use evictions. The landlord must show “immediate or compelling necessity” to evict a tenant to get personal use of their apartment, and can only take one apartment. The prior law let landlords clear out an entire building if they claimed they wanted it for themselves.

Section J. Provides tenancy rights to certain subtenants of nonprofits in scatter-site housing.

Section K. Limits MCI and IAI rent increases for renovations. While not repealing increases for individual apartment improvements building-wide major capital improvements, the new law limits the maximum annual increase for MCIs from 6 percent to 2 percent, retroactive to June 16, 2012. It also requires a “reasonable cost” schedule, limits the type of work that qualifies, denies increases to buildings with hazardous violations, and mandates that DHCR audit 25 percent of MCI applications. It limits increases for apartment renovations to $15,000 over 15 years, less than $90 a month. Both types of increases will expire after 30 years.

Section L. DHCR must make annual reports. DHCR’s enforcement of rent regulations has been notoriously weak, rubber-stamping fraudulent rent registrations and MCI applications while taking years to process overcharge complaints. The new law requires the agency to issue a public report on its Website every year that describes what its Office of Rent Administration and Tenant Protection Unit are doing “to implement, administer, and enforce the system of rent registration.” That report must also include data about rental levels, preferential rents, MCIs, and overcharge complaints.

Section M. Major changes in laws affecting tenancies and evictions. These include limitations on tenant screening reports (which are often used to blacklist potential tenants); requiring longer notice before some eviction cases can be brought and giving tenants more time to answer; stronger language against retaliatory evictions; limits on fees that can be charged on top of rent; making it easier to get adjournments in Housing Court and sharply limiting when tenants have to deposit rent with the court while a case is pending; requiring marshals to give 14 days’ notice before executing an eviction warrant; and directing the courts to consider hardship when issuing eviction orders, letting them give tenants up to one year to move after a holdover judgment is issued.

Section N. Co-ops and Condos. To prevent owners who don’t want to deal with the new law from converting rental apartments to co-ops or condos, it abolishes eviction plans (meaning regulated tenants who do not buy their apartments cannot be evicted), prevents conversions unless 51 percent of current tenants buy, and protects elderly and disabled tenants renting unregulated coop or condo apartments from eviction.

Section O. Mobile Homes. The new law extends many protections to tenants living in manufactured or mobile homes who are facing eviction from new owners.