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Paying Rent

Why the Last-Ditch Effort to Pass Good Cause Failed

Lawmakers and advocates point fingers, as New York's dysfunctional government failed to act once again.

A close-up of a row of apartment buildings.

(Aleks Marinkovic / Unsplash)

Seemingly everybody agrees that New York's biggest problem statewide is the skyrocketing cost of housing, especially for renters. Yet New York state's lawmakers are going to end the 2023 legislative session without passing any major housing laws that would help create new apartments or protect existing tenants. How did this happen?

Last week, with just a few days left in the session, a bicameral working group coalesced around a framework of a deal. According to legislators Hell Gate spoke with, the deal ensured that a version of 421-a, the tax break for developers, would be renewed, while New York City tenants would get a version of "Good Cause" eviction: Rent increases would be capped at 10 percent, and only tenants whose landlords owned eight or more units would qualify. The bill would only automatically benefit NYC residents, but any municipality in the state could vote to also adopt those protections. 

The bill did not contain the meat of Governor Kathy Hochul's housing proposals to force more new construction in the suburbs. But this compromise, legislators reasoned, was better than nothing.

Lawmakers went to sleep last Wednesday, fully expecting to vote on the compromise package on Thursday. Instead, they were greeted with a statement from their leaders—Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins—declaring the deal dead, and blaming the governor for it.

"Unfortunately, it was clear that we could not come to an agreement with the governor on this plan," the statement read. "It takes all three parties—the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor—in order to enact legislation into law."

Critics pointed out that Democrats have a legislative supermajority, with enough votes to override the governor's veto. They could have brought the measure to a vote and dared the governor to veto it—unless they actually lacked the votes to ensure its passage, which is essentially what Hochul spokesperson Julie Wood implied in a response to the joint statement.

"Absolutely nothing stood in the legislature's way," Wood said in a statement.

Lawmakers from both houses insisted to Hell Gate that they did have the votes to pass the compromise bill, but that Heastie and Stewart-Cousins were ultimately too afraid to create a direct confrontation with the governor. And given the slim margins they have for passage in both chambers, overriding a veto was far from guaranteed. 

"The governor is willing to really go to war," said a legislator, who asked we not identify them, for fear of reprisal from legislative leadership. The legislator also pointed out that Hochul derailed the budget process by insisting on changes to the state's bail laws, and suggested that she would do the same thing to important end-of-session legislation.

"She might kill all of the other things that we're trying to pass, like Clean Slate, like a commission on reparations, nominations," the legislator said. "If they print this bill and go to war with the governor, then all of these things might be in danger."

But some tenant advocates aren't buying that explanation—to Housing Justice for All's Cea Weaver, legislative leadership ultimately failed to work hard enough to get the votes for the bill to ensure its passage. 

"I really think the Senate and Assembly leadership just completely failed. They didn't do a good enough job—it was their job to build enough support and negotiate a package that they could bring to the floor, and they just decided not to, so it's on them," Weaver said. "They completely abdicated their responsibility."

Weaver said that Hochul was always going to push back against any tenant protections, but that ultimately she didn't believe the governor would dare veto a popular bill that would provide immediate relief to tenants. 

"We always knew Kathy Hochul hated this. But people love this bill, it's hugely popular. There's no chance she'd veto it once it's on her desk," Weaver said. 

But legislators remained skeptical. 

"The bill language was shared with the governor, and she didn't like it because she doesn't support tenant protections," explained another state legislator who was familiar with the negotiations, who also requested anonymity. "It's my understanding that the governor is just beyond negotiating on anything that is vaguely Good Cause."

According to Weaver, some upstate legislators also pushed back against the compromise legislation—even though their districts were already carved out of the proposal. (In a recent analysis, New York Focus found that legislators who own their homes are far more likely to oppose Good Cause legislation.)

Then there's the influence of the real estate lobby. The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has viewed any tenant protections for market-rate tenants as an existential threat (and spent millions to defeat it). Hochul's election campaign took in more than $4.6 million from real estate interests, while just this session, REBNY spent $657,000 lobbying against any Good Cause provisions in a housing bill, according to data compiled by Housing Justice for All.

Stewart-Cousins and Heastie did not respond to a request for comment. The governor's office did not respond to the legislators' accusations about her motives for being opposed to tenant protections.

In May, Manhattan median rent was up 9.9 percent compared to the same period last year, reaching record highs. In Brooklyn, median rent was up 9.2 percent compared to last May, and in Queens, it was 15.3 percent higher than the same period last year. Meanwhile, evictions are soaring, while most tenants who are taken to housing court still do not have a lawyer.

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