Historic changes are coming to New York’s rent laws. Broad pro-tenant reforms that will impact nearly half of the city’s renters and offer similar protections upstate were approved Friday by Democrats in the state legislature, sparking an emotional reaction from proponents — and prompting landlord groups to threaten legal action.
A triumphant mood swept through the Capitol Building a day before current rent laws were set to expire as supporters and lawmakers behind the landmark overhaul celebrated the win.
Gov. Cuomo signed the legislation into law early Friday evening. Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), a freshman lawmaker and vocal supporter of strengthening tenant protections, wiped tears from his eyes before addressing a crowd of advocates.
“Today, the tenants will win," he said to an explosion of cheers. “We have been losing in the building for decades, but today the tenants will win.”
Myrie said the fight was personal for him, recalling his days representing his mother in housing court.
“To go from that to being in this Senate chamber, passing protections for people like my mom,” he told the Daily News. “This moment right now is exactly the reason I ran for office. It is the most pressing issue in my district. It is an issue that is very personal to me.”
Advocates showered Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) with a chorus of “Thank You! Thank You!”
“The legislation we passed today achieves that commitment and will help millions of New Yorkers throughout our state," Stewart-Cousins said.
Debate over the package of bills in the Assembly stretched into the afternoon as Republicans argued that the measures will harm owners, tenants and even impact property taxes for home owners.
“It’s going to hinder development of affordable housing and make it harder for smaller, mom-and-pop owners to invest in their properties,” Assemblywoman Nicole Maliotakis said.
The reforms are a major blow to the politically-powerful real estate lobby and building owners who argue the package of laws will lead to less investment in affordable housing and a deterioration of already regulated buildings.
Real estate leaders are already discussing a lawsuit that could be filed as soon as Monday, the Commercial Observer first reported on Friday.
“The new rent reform legislation effectively shuts down reinvestment because it eliminates the resources landlords need to upgrade and maintain their buildings and apartments - and that will mean the loss of millions of jobs for New Yorkers and billions of dollars in revenue for local businesses and city coffers," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 landlords in the city.
The real estate industry has long been viewed as one of the most powerful influences in Albany. But well-organized protesters became a constant presence in the Capitol Building in recent months as the clock ticked down to Saturday’s deadline. Advocates flooded stairwells, hallways and legislators’ offices on a near-daily basis as they called on legislators to pass the progressive reforms.
Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Queens) and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), the housing chairs of the their respective chambers, both hosted housing hearings across the state as they sought to build a package of bills they believe best served all residents of the state.
The end result is a package of new regulations that will make it harder for building owners to raise rents and deregulate apartments and will enact other bold changes that “swing the pendulum” in favor of tenants, according to Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan).
“This has been such a struggle," Rosenthal said. “You can have the best intentions and the best legislation and in comes the landlords and real estate industry stepping on all of you’re efforts because of the influence of money.”
The new rules include ending high-rent vacancy deregulation and vacancy bonus, preventing landlords from using the preferential rent loophole and decreasing the amount landlords can charge tenants for building improvements from 6% to 2%.
Preferential rents, which are slightly lower than market rate, will be guaranteed for as long as a tenant occupies an apartment, preventing landlords from raising rents when a lease is renewed. A four-year ‘lookback’ rule that held landlords accountable for overcharges will be expanded to six years and tenants living in the city’s 22,000 older rent-controlled apartments will see a new cap on annual rent increases.
Advocates were ecstatic over the changes, commending Stewart-Cousins and Heastie for negotiating a historic deal that encompassed the majority of their demands.
“This package of legislation will reverse decades of rampant landlord abuse and enact much-needed protections for hundreds of thousands of tenants in New York State,” said Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “It is a new day for our clients and all low-income communities who have been disproportionately impacted by rent loopholes."
Heastie, who took heat from progressive groups accusing him of being in the pocket of the real estate industry despite backing most of the measures months ago, said the passage proves his detractors wrong. "I feel that people questioned the Assembly’s heart even though we’ve always been in the right place on the tenants’ side,” he said. “I just hope that in the future... that all of the advocates give the Assembly the benefit of the doubt. We’ve never failed you and we will never fail you.”
Currently, about one million residential units in the city and its suburbs are regulated under the state’s rent control or stabilization programs. How much rents for those units can rise each is determined by a Rent Guidelines Board. The new laws allow municipalities across to the state to opt-in to similar programs and does away with the need to revisit the laws every few years by making them permanent. Cuomo, who was not involved in the negotiations and spent recent weeks taunting and daring Senate Dems to vote, signed the package immediately after it passed both chambers.
“At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for the most sweeping, aggressive tenant protections in state history,” he said. “I’m confident the measure passed today is the strongest possible set of reforms that the Legislature was able to pass and are a major step forward for tenants across New York.”