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‘Whoever Passed Good Cause First Had to Pass the Best Version’

And more landmark news for your Wednesday morning.

(Hell Gate)

Good Cause Eviction has become policy in the city of Albany—for the second time. The first version of the tenant protections law, passed in 2021, was  "stronger than what we have now," according to United Tenants of Albany Executive Director Canyon Ryan, with a maximum annual rent increase of just 5 percent. That law was struck down by a state Supreme Court judge in 2022, who ruled that it conflicted with state property laws. "The state definitely hampered our ability to get the full Good Cause that we had already passed in 2021, which was a big fight," said Ryan.  

But despite setting maximum rent increases higher than in the original bill, Ryan and other tenants rights advocates were surprised with how smoothly voting on similar legislation went three years later, when Albany's Common Council voted to opt in to the tenant protections. "We didn't know [Good Cause] was gonna pass last night," Ryan said when we spoke on Tuesday night. "We were hearing August in the middle of last week." We talked to Ryan about how Good Cause Eviction protects tenants and penalizes bad landlords (and only bad landlords), how Albany's version of Good Cause differs from New York City's, and what this vote means for other upcoming decisions about Good Cause Eviction upstate.

Hell Gate: What is Good Cause Eviction, and why have tenants' rights and housing justice advocates in New York put so much effort in enacting it?

Canyon Ryan: The basic definition of Good Cause Eviction is that it is a limitation on your landlord's right to gouge your rent, and evict you for no reason. So, arbitrary and capricious evictions and rent increases are significantly limited. What that means in practice is that a landlord has to give cause to terminate a lease unilaterally or terminate a tenancy after the lease has expired. If they can't provide a good cause within the set parameters of the Real Property Law 6-A, they can't evict. If they can provide cause within that definition, then they can terminate the tenancy—and they can't increase the rent more than 10 percent or 5 percent, plus the Consumer Price Index, which in Albany is around 8 percent. 

The landlord can, of course, increase it beyond that, but they have to provide a reason—"the assessment came through and I put a new washer dryer downstairs, so rent's going up," which sucks, but it's a limitation that we'll take. It was a lot of negotiating and talking to tenants and having them do outreach to the Common Council and supporting the sponsor, but everything came together really quickly and exactly as we had hoped. 

What do you make of opponents of Good Cause who say that the legislation hurts small landlords?

A good landlord is not negatively impacted by Good Cause, because they're not the ones that are gouging rent or evicting elderly tenants. I understand the relevance of the plight of the small landlord—costs are going up and assessment fees, etc. But they can raise all those issues and say, "I need to increase the rent 11 percent," and if they're truly a small landlord, the court will sympathize with them. The court's not going to sympathize with a mega landlord, or a big slumlord, who says, "Look, I have to increase rent, all my properties are in foreclosure," when it's like, yeah, but that's because your tenants live in shitty conditions. 

How do the protections in the iteration of Good Cause Eviction that Albany's Common Council opted in to differ from Good Cause Eviction protections we have in New York City?

In New York City, the state legislature had to make the determination for how the city's Good Cause Eviction would operate. In Albany, we were allowed to alter two things: the definition of a small landlord and the maximum fair market rent (a metric that calculates the 40th percentile of gross rents for standard rental units occupied by recent movers in a local housing market) before a tenant is no longer considered eligible for Good Cause Eviction protections.

We've defined a small landlord as those with one rental unit or less in their portfolio in New York state, which basically means aside from the other exemptions, the only landlord that is exempt from Good Cause is one who rents a single-family home, and that's it. The worst thing that we can do is pass a protection that tenants don't know if they have or assume that they don't. So, if we make this number anything other than one, how is your average tenant going to know how many properties their landlord has, even assuming good faith from a landlord?

According to UTA data, 44 percent of tenants that we worked with in 2023 didn't have a lease—that's a significant minority of tenants. Good Cause is predicated on tenants having a lease and landlords operating in good faith and notifying tenants of their holdings. The average tenant isn't going to be able to investigate the claims of a landlord, but if it's one unit, you can look upstairs, look downstairs, across the hall. It's something that's actionable.

In New York City, the FMR cap was 245 percent. And in Albany, we made it 345 percent, which is just a demonstration of goodwill and saying, you know, yeah, it could be 1,000 percent if we really wanted it to be, but 345 is an actual number. We didn't want to do 245, because the worry was that some landlords may take the opportunity to increase rent, say 60 percent—but there's no way that they could increase it 160 percent and expect to rent it out. So, we've got a real barrier in terms of what the maximum rent could be, so that it's something that's untenable for the market here in Albany. 

Why do you think Albany succeeded in winning those stronger protections?

I think there's a lot that comes into play. One is that four Common Council members are running for an open State Assembly position right now, so everybody wants to come out in support of protections that our former assemblymember never really fought for, at the state level, and to kind of demonstrate like, yeah, we're with you guys. 

Now, specifically, the definition of a small landlord being one unit, that was a result of a few things. One is being able to communicate with our Common Council in a positive and productive way. We don't have a negative relationship with most, if any of them. That made it really possible to talk with Councilmember Alfredo Balarin, who sponsored the original Good Cause Eviction. The one member who voted "present" suggested to bring the definition up to landlords who own four units or less, and we were able to provide data that the city of Albany has that showed that up to 20 percent of tenants would have been exempt from Good Cause Eviction, if we just made the definition of a small landlord four units or less. 

What do you think this vote means for upcoming Good Cause opt-in votes in Kingston and Ithaca?

Albany passing Good Cause as quickly and randomly as it did last night has already made a really significant impact on what the rest of the state should be doing—and, ideally, will be doing. Tenants' rights groups, we're all in communication, we all support each other in different ways. I know that it's been kind of weird in Kingston lately, in terms of the definition of a small landlord specifically. My understanding, just based on some conversations with comrades down there, is that Albany passing this version of Good Cause last night has already made an impact on their considerations of what a small landlord is. 

That's exactly what we wanted—whoever passed Good Cause first had to pass the best version, because we didn't want other cities to say, well, you know, what makes Albany so special if Kingston is gonna say, "a small landlord is someone who owns four units or less." At one point for us, there was even conversations with the sponsor [Balarin] like, "Hey man, if we're gonna, for lack of a better term, fuck this up and define a small landlords anything more than one, then we don't want it yet." We want to see Kingston pass it or we want Ithaca to pass it, because we didn't want to set the bar low, especially as the first city. On Good Cause specifically, a lot of these cities have followed Albany and watched our progression and adopted our version of Good Cause—the stronger version that we wrote in 2021. So if Albany was going to do it, again, we need to do it the best that we could. And, you know, on top of that, everybody deserves this protection.

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