On Monday, Albany became the first municipality in New York to pass “good cause” eviction protections, which would bar landlords from evicting tenants or increasing rents more than 5 percent without justification.
Despite an extensive opposition campaign from real estate groups, nine of the fifteen members of Albany’s Common Council voted to approve the policy, while four voted “present,” one was absent, and one voted against.
Albany was the first stop in a campaign that housing rights organizers are mounting in cities across upstate New York, as New York Focus reported last week. Organizers are picking cities based on local housing conditions—but also with an eye to persuading upstate legislators seen as roadblocks to statewide good cause legislation, which died in committee during the last two sessions, that their constituents support the policy.
Monday “was a historic day, not just for the city of Albany, but for the state of New York,” said Rebecca Garrard, Albany-based legislative director at the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York. “We are very, very excited to see which cities pass this legislation next, and to see the impact of these local campaigns on the 2022 legislative session.”
Laura Burns, CEO of the Albany-area Greater Capital Association of Realtors (GCAR), said that the legislation demonstrated an insensitivity to local landlords.
“In the city of Albany, there are basically mom-and-pop operations. It’s not a conglomerate that owns it. These people are hurting right now,” she told New York Focus. “At this time, when landlords are in the worst possible financial situation that they’ve been in for years, you’re going to take this action?”
Burns stressed that New York already has some of the strongest tenant protections in the country, and that the state should focus on enforcing those rather than adding new ones.
But tenant organizers say existing laws, including the 2019 package, don’t protect tenants across most of the state from arbitrary evictions and rent hikes. The United Tenants Association of Albany says landlords filed 4,120 proceedings for eviction in the city court in 2019 alone.
Moreover, organizers say the threat of eviction discourages tenants from demanding repairs even when conditions in their units reach unsafe or unsanitary levels.
Hasson Harris Wilcher, a 25-year-old Albany resident, described growing up in these conditions. Raised by a single mother who worked as a teaching assistant, he found himself “bouncing around from place to place” before moving in high school to a building in the city’s historically Black South End.
“My bedroom was the addition that they added to make a second bedroom, and it continuously flooded, year after year, when it rained,” he told New York Focus. “There were bubbles that formed and cracks that formed going right on top of my bed and down the side of the walls, so my bed was routinely flooded. It’s not something you can go ahead and talk about and tell people: ‘Oh yeah, I slept on a waterlogged bed.’”
Harris Wilcher, who has a degree in biomedical engineering and has worked as a teacher and medical technician since returning to Albany after college, said he felt recognized when the city council passed the good cause bill. “Politicians are listening to the people,” he said.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said the good cause bill, along with two other bills in a fair housing package, was the culmination of a “very long and deliberative process” dating back nearly to the beginning of her mayoralty in 2014. The pandemic put Sheehan’s housing reforms “on pause,” but as conditions returned closer to normal this spring, she and supportive councilmembers bumped them back to the top of their agenda.
The recent focus on good cause in particular, she told New York Focus, came largely at the urging of housing organizers. She attributed its passage to the fact that “the advocates showed up.”
“Albany used to have this reputation as a political machine,” Sheehan said. “If the mayor was in favor of something, it got done. I don’t run a machine…. I think it’s important for advocates to recognize that they’ve got to go and talk to every single councilmember and help to whip those votes. And the advocates in this case did that.”
A ‘staggering’ shift in momentum
Garrard said those efforts seemed to be paying off in renewed attention to good cause from activists and lawmakers around the state.
“We couldn’t buy momentum around good cause during the legislative session,” she said. “Since [Monday] night we’ve already seen a shift in momentum that is staggering.”
Garrard hopes that momentum could win over Assemblymembers Patricia Fahy and John T. McDonald, who represent Albany in the state legislature and who she describes as having “led the charge” against the statewide good cause bill.
McDonald, in an emailed statement to New York Focus, signaled that it might.
“I commend the City Of Albany legislators and Mayor Sheehan for their deliberative and thoughtful legislation to protect tenants as well as small landlords,” he wrote. “To their credit they evaluated changes that needed to be made to the legislation and made many critical amendments which led to an outcome that was responsive to concerns expressed by members of the local community.”
“Through this process I believe we have a starting framework for this effort to be replicated throughout the state of New York,” McDonald continued.
In a follow-up, Mcdonald explained that he had not signed on to the state bill because he “needed to hear more from the people I represent.” He added that the bill was not a priority in the Assembly during the pandemic, but that “now that Albany has passed this legislation, this is a great time to dig further into this bill to address concerns.”
Fahy did not make herself available for comment, but a spokesperson said she supported the intent of the good cause bill, though she had concerns about how some aspects of it might play out legally.
Garrard, reacting to McDonald’s comments, said it was “heartening to hear that Assemblymember McDonald believes that minor amendments to the statewide legislation would translate to him being a champion of this bill in the 2022 legislative session,” and that she hoped to work “closely” with him toward that end.
In the meantime, organizers are hoping to replicate their success in Albany elsewhere across the state. New Paltz, Hudson, Ithaca, and Kingston are already on their list. Garrard also points to Syracuse and Utica — the state’s fifth- and tenth-largest cities, respectively — where a combination of statewide attention and local conditions have pushed the issue into the spotlight.
In Utica, the evacuation of a large residential building last week has fueled outrage among tenants and elected officials. Nearly 60 residents were given less than 24 hours’ notice to leave after fire marshals deemed the building unsafe, as a result of water and other damage throughout its five stories. But the building had been on local authorities’ radar for years.
Chelsea Arcuri, Citizen Action’s community organizer for central New York, said she’d heard complaints about the building since moving to the area five years ago—and that good cause protections could have prevented conditions from reaching their current state.
“With good cause eviction in Utica, people would actually feel comfortable reporting the conditions of their housing, and not have the fear of retaliation” from their landlord, Arcuri told New York Focus. “People could then hold their rent until conditions improved.”
Two out of Utica’s ten councilmembers are expected to speak in support of local good cause at a press conference planned for Thursday. Garrard hopes a resulting bill could be introduced before the end of the month.
She added that the campaign for local protections in Utica was born of “real need, not political strategy.” But she nevertheless hopes it could put pressure on Assemblymember Marianne Buttenschon, who represents the area and has not signed on to the statewide bill. The same is true of Senators John Mannion in Syracuse and Michelle Hinchey in Kingston, she said.
Buttenschon, Mannion and Hinchey did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, lead sponsor of the good cause bill in the chamber since 2019, said that she is encouraged by its “decisive victory” in Albany.
“We see the movement for good cause building in these other cities and I really am hopeful that it will build support for us to pass it at the state level,” she said.