SI Advance: Bill would protect tenants’ rights

By Teresa DeFonso
May 13, 2019

The Johnsons have been living in their rented apartment in a two-family home in Staten Island for over three decades. They have always paid on time. But to their newest landlord, their good and decades-long tenancy does not matter. Last year, the landlord battled them for their apartment for months in housing court, for no good reason. The landlord only agreed to let the Johnsons stay for one more year if they paid an additional $500 per month.

Now, the Johnsons are paying half of their monthly income toward rent and still do not have security of tenancy. Not to mention that the Johnsons have had to cut down on basic necessities, like food and transportation, to make ends meet. Under current New York State law, this is all legal. The landlord can bump the Johnsons rent, then still choose to evict them as soon as their lease expires, for no reason.

The Johnson family is only one of the thousands of unprotected Staten Island residents currently living in the borough’s 47,000 unregulated rental apartments.[1] As of 2017, Staten Island had the lowest share of all housing units that are rent-regulated in New York City. [2] As part of that reality, the rent on apartments with recent movers increased up to 50 percent over the past 15 years in some neighborhoods. That means that, inflation aside, an $800 rent in 2002 may be $1,200 or more today on an unregulated apartment. At the Legal Aid Society, where I work as an attorney, we know that a $400 rent hike can be nearly as good as an eviction.

In the current tenant and landlord playing field, the cards are stacked against tenants. Under New York State law, landlords can issue unconscionable rent hikes and push arbitrary evictions without “good cause.” When the lease of a tenant living in a building of less than six units expires, the landlord does not have to offer a renewal lease to that tenant, even if the tenant has lived there for decades and always pays on time. Once a tenant is evicted, the landlord can hike the rent, precluding a renter in a similar income bracket from moving in. In other words, many tenants not only live at risk of eviction, but also in fear of requesting repairs or demanding safe living conditions. They know that landlords may choose to evict rather than repair.

The “Good Cause Eviction” (S2892/A5030) bill currently before the New York State Legislature is designed to even out the playing field and extend tenant protections to an additional 24,000 apartments in Staten Island. The Good Cause bill gives tenants the right to a renewal lease and, in turn, protects communities from rent increases and market speculation that can result in harassment, displacement, and homelessness. Good Cause Eviction includes currently unprotected tenants who live in buildings with less than six units but excludes owner-occupied buildings with less than four units.

Being on the frontlines of New York City’s housing crisis for over two decades, I have witnessed enough Staten Island residents lose their homes for no good reason and not be able to find affordable new ones. Albany has until June 15, 2019 to pass the “Good Cause Eviction” bill. I invite you to call on our elected officials to pass this long-overdue law that vests in tenants the power to fight for their homes.

(Teresa DeFonso is attorney-in-charge of the civil practice in the Staten Island Neighborhood Office of The Legal Aid Society.)