NYT: How New Rent Laws in N.Y. Help All Tenants

The new laws represent a significant power shift away from landlords.CreditCreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

The new laws represent a significant power shift away from landlords.CreditCreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní
June 21, 2019

The bulk of the landmark changes to New York’s rent laws last week was aimed at strengthening protections for the 2.4 million people who live in New York City’s rent-regulated apartments, or almost half of the city’s tenants.

But buried in the 74-page bill is an expansive patchwork of new protections that apply to all renters statewide, including 43 percent of New York City renters who live in unregulated apartments.

Taken together, the new laws — on everything from evictions to security deposits to rent caps for residents of mobile homes — represent a significant power shift away from landlords and cement New York’s standing as a national leader of policies favorable to renters, of which there are 8.2 million statewide.

“It’s arguable now that New York state’s protections are more stringent than in any other state,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor and faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “Ultimately, the real measure of stringency is going to come from the actual implementation and enforcement of these laws.”

Trade groups representing landlords and property managers said new limits on security deposits and evictions could hinder an owner’s finances and ability to remove disruptive tenants. The New York real estate industry vigorously opposed the new laws and invested in an expensive lobbying campaign and ad blitz to unsuccessfully counter the measures.

The changes, on the heels of a statewide rent cap that Oregon approved earlier this year, could fuel momentum in other states considering tenant-favorable laws at a time when more households are renting than at any point in a half-century.

New York has long been heralded as a haven for renters: New York City helped pioneer regulations that now dictate the rents of almost one million apartments in the city.

The changes last week tightened those regulations, but legislators also borrowed policies from other states, bolstering the rights and protections for millions of unregulated renters, who do not enjoy the same safeguards regulated tenants do.

Here’s what you need to know if you rent an apartment in New York.

Security deposits Security deposits will now be limited to one month’s rent, and it will be easier for all renters to get their security deposits back.

“For people who are very low income or even homeless, the security deposit can be a big barrier,” said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Ten other states and Washington, D.C., have the one-month limit on security deposits, according to a March 2018 analysis from Rent Cafe, a rental listings site.

There was already a similar rule for regulated renters in New York. About two dozen states do not have limits for security deposits.

Greg Brown, the senior vice president of government affairs at the National Apartment Association, said the new limits could hurt a property owner’s ability to pay for apartment damages or cover owed rent if a tenant breaks a lease.

“If there is damage to the unit, a larger owner might be able to absorb that more easily than a smaller owner could,” said Mr. Brown, whose association represents 82,000 property managers, leasing agents, developers and others nationwide.

Notice

Landlords are now required to provide tenants with notice if they intend to raise the rent by more than 5 percent.

They must also notify tenants if they do not intend to renew a lease.

If a tenant has a lease of less than one year, a 30-day notice is now mandatory. A 60-day notice is required for renters who have lived in an apartment for more than one year, but less than two years, or have a lease of at least one year, but less than two years.

Tenants who have lived in a unit for more than two years, or have a lease of at least two years, must get a 90-day notice.

Landlords of regulated apartments were already required to give 90- to 120-day notices.

New eviction protections

One of the most significant changes is a new protection that bolsters a tenant’s defense against a landlord pursuing a retaliatory eviction. The change applies to all renters.

A judge may now stay an eviction for up to one year, rather than six months, if the tenant cannot find a similar dwelling in the same neighborhood after a reasonable search.

And a court must also consider how an eviction may exacerbate a tenant’s health condition, affect a child’s enrollment in a local school, and other factors.

“We see tenants getting evicted in the middle of the school year and what that does to families,” said Judith Goldiner, head of the Legal Aid Society’s civil law reform unit. “The changes give these families the ability to move into a stable situation.”

She added, “These changes might dissuade some landlords from bringing eviction cases against month-to-month tenants merely in order to keep application fees and security deposits.”

Unlawful evictions, such as when a landlord illegally locks out or uses force to evict a tenant, would become a misdemeanor punishable by a civil penalty of $1,000 to $10,000 per violation.

Mr. Brown said longer stays on evictions would limit an landlord’s ability to remove tenants with behavioral issues, which could negatively affect neighbors and the building’s finances if the tenant withheld rent.

The changes “don’t really solve the core problem of why most people face evictions, which is their inability to pay rent.”

These new protections would complement a 2017 law that made New York the first city to implement a universal right to counsel, guaranteeing free legal assistance for tenants facing eviction.

But there are about 200,000 mobile and manufactured homes across the state, an important source of affordable housing, according to Brian P. Kavanagh, a Democratic state senator and chairman of the Senate’s Housing Committee.

“Those residents are particularly vulnerable because they often own the structure, but not the land underneath it,” Mr. Kavanagh said.

The rent increase a park owner can charge is now capped at 3 percent, or up to 6 percent if the government finds the increase justifiable.

Protections against evictions, including for seasonal residents, were also strengthened, making it harder to evict a tenant if a park owner decides to repurpose the land.

Other changes

Tenants now have 30 days to fix lease violations, rather than 10 days under previous rules.

Application fees, including fees for a background check, are now limited to $20.

Tenants who were seen as troublemakers by landlords — perhaps for standing up for their rights — would sometimes end up on blacklists that would be shared among rental agencies.

That practice would be banned, prohibiting landlords from discriminating based on a tenant’s history in housing court. Other states, including California and Illinois, have experimented with other solutions, like having certain housing court records automatically sealed.

If a tenant breaks a lease, a landlord is now required to try to rent the apartment to someone else, making it harder for owners to keep a unit vacant and charge the tenant for the remainder of the lease.

That’s a lot. What does it all mean?

Tenant organizers nationwide said they are hopeful the changes could pave the way for more tenant rights in other states and fuel a push for rent controls that are an age-old staple of New York City.

“Right behind Oregon, we see New York’s victory as the second in this wave of historic rent regulation victories,” said Lisa Owens, a steering committee member of Right to the City Alliance, a national housing justice coalition that supports universal rent control.

“They have opened the doors for states like mine,” she said, referring to Massachusetts, “which have pre-emptions against rent regulations, but have strong and growing tenant movements.”

Mr. Brown, of the National Apartment Association, said the push for rent control — which limits how much landlords can raise rents — was not surprising, but would not address the underlying issue of producing for affordable housing.

“Rent control will not contribute a single unit to that effort and, in fact, will hinder our ability to reach that goal,” he said.

Rent control in the United States varies by state. Most states prohibit rent control, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

As of 2018, only four states — California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York — and Washington, D.C., had localities with some type of rent control. A few months ago, Oregon became the first state to implement statewide rent control.

Last month, the California Assembly passed a bill to cap rent increases statewide, sending the proposal to the Senate. There are also campaigns to pass universal rent control in Colorado, Illinois and Washington.

Even as the new rent laws riled the New York real estate industry, tenant advocates said they were upset legislators did not pass a “good cause” eviction bill that would have made it considerably harder for landlords to evict tenants in most market-rate apartments statewide.