Skip to main content

Addressing Rent Costs and Tenants Rights in NY

Email share

Raga Justin: Welcome to "New York and Renting." I'm your host, Raga Justin. Few things are more fundamental to our stability and wellbeing than having a place to live and as it turns out, living can be pretty expensive. Rents just about everywhere increased dramatically during the pandemic and while rent costs aren't rising as quickly as they were back in 2021, they are still rising. 

This is a big issue in New York state, especially considering that it has the lowest rate of home ownership in the country due to the high density housing of New York City which houses around 40% of the state's population. What makes this a notable issue for this show is that housing laws and regulations are heavily controlled by local politics. So if housing affordability is something you feel passionate about, we'll give you plenty of material to sink your teeth into. 

In this episode, we're going to hear from tenant and property owner advocates, take a look at tenants' rights in New York, and look at what cities around the state are doing to reel in high rents. 

First, let's look at some of the basic rights a tenant has when renting a residential unit or building. It is illegal for a property owner to refuse to rent an apartment to someone based on their sex, nationality, race, disability, age, or marital status. A property owner can refuse to rent to a prospective tenant if they believe their income is too low to afford the payments. 

When you sign a lease, it is common practice to pay first month's rent plus a security deposit, but it is no longer legal in New York to be charged first and last month's rent upfront plus security deposit. The security deposit itself cannot cost any more than one month's rent. When you move out, the remainder of the security deposit must be returned to you within 14 days and provided with a receipt describing any subtractions that were made to cover damages. This 14-day deadline only applies to non-rent-regulated units. Deposits for regulated and stabilized units must be returned within an undefined reasonable amount of time according to the office of the State Attorney General. 

New York is a state full of historic properties and while that can be very charming, old buildings can come with plenty of issues. This can mean increased presence of rodents and insects, issues with heating and water infrastructure and more. Under New York State law, tenants have the right to a habitable living space meaning that the apartment they rent should be clean, safe, and livable. For example, if your unit has a black mold issue and the owner refuses to take care of it, that would be a violation of your warranty of habitability. That said, according to the State Attorney General's office, any uninhabitable condition caused by the tenant or persons under the tenant's direction or control does not constitute a breach of the warranty of habitability. In such a case, it is the tenant's responsibility to remedy the condition. If you notify your landlord about a habitability issue in your unit and they refuse to acknowledge or address the issue, you may have the right to sue for a rent reduction or even withhold rent, though the latter puts you at risk of being sued by the property owner. 

But what if there is an unaddressed safety hazard in your apartment and you can't afford a lawyer? The good news is that there are free legal services and resources available and we've linked to some in the description. There are also plenty of other tenant and landlord laws that we don't have the time to cover, so we put some helpful resources from the State Attorney General's office in the description as well. 

Next, let's look at some of the action happening around New York State in regards to local governments trying to make rental units more affordable. Most of what we'll go over in this section is handled by local counsels and officials, people who have more influence over housing than you might think. These are prime examples of a potential form of change that could be made in your hometown. 

The first topic we'll look at is inclusionary zoning. There is no one-size-fits-all version of inclusionary zoning as its implementation can vary between municipalities, but it generally means that a town or city can require new residential developments to designate a certain percentage of units as affordable. For example, in Albany, the percentage of required affordable units is determined by how large the planned development would be. If a 50-unit apartment building is built, 10% of those units have to be affordable. In the world of housing, affordable usually means that no more than 30% of a person's gross income is going towards rent. In Albany, inclusionary zoning is tied to 60% of AMI, the area's median income. This means that affordable units have to be priced so that someone who makes 60% or less of the area's median income can rent that unit without spending more than 30% of their gross income. Sorry for all the numbers. 

Proponents of inclusionary zoning see it as a way to incrementally add affordable units to an area's new housing stock with concerns that new market rate housing is largely unaffordable to locals. Opponents such as Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan see the regulation as something that incentivizes developers to build elsewhere where their profit margins could be higher. This led to Sheehan's vetoing Albany's updated version of the regulation, only to be overridden by the city's common council. But even advocates of inclusionary zoning see it as more of a piece to the overall puzzle rather than a be-all solution to affordable housing. 

Next, instead of looking at the creation of new units, we'll look at the loss of units and by that, I'm talking about short-term versus long-term rentals. You may be familiar with platforms like Airbnb and VRBO as alternatives to staying at a hotel. However despite being considered part of the hospitality industry, short-term rentals are usually regulated differently. They also can be more profitable to run than long-term rentals which has some housing advocates concerned about a reduction in long-term rental availability. We spoke with Daniel Atonna, a political coordinator from the Hudson Valley Advocacy Group For The Many, for his thoughts on short-term rentals.

Daniel Atonna: So short-term rentals, especially vacation rentals, bring a whole lot of problems. So by turning homes into hotels, it shrinks the housing supply which ends up driving up prices and also destroys the character of a community. Ideally we could pass a vacation rental ban meaning that only owner-occupied short-term rentals would be allowed, for example, that would be a ban on entire homes being turned into Airbnbs, but then still allowing someone to list their spare bedroom on Airbnb. So I think it's okay for someone who has a spare bedroom to offer it up as a short-term rental to make a little extra cash, but it's not okay for outside investors to be buying up homes and then turning them into permanent hotels.

JR: A new law in New York City requires short-term hosts to register their units and be approved by the city before renting them out. The law also stipulates that the host must be physically present in the rented home. This is in an effort to prevent people from buying up large sections of housing and converting them to short-term rentals. Airbnb released a statement on the new restrictions, calling them punitive and burdensome. 

Another housing cost control measure being looked at around the state is the ETPA, also known as the Emergency Tenant Protections Act. This is a 1974 state law that allows municipalities and counties to subject housing units to rent stabilization if the area's housing occupancy rate falls below 5%. This regulation only applies to buildings built before 1974 that have six or more residential units. According to the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, the specifics of the rent stabilization are determined by a rent guidelines board. The thinking here is that housing scarcity leads to more competition for available units which drives up prices. In 2022, the city of Kingston enacted the ETPA after finding it had a vacancy rate of only 1.57%, though property owners in the area questioned the accuracy of that figure. To talk about what makes the ETPA unique in the Hudson Valley, we spoke with Daniel Atonna from For The Many.

DA: The thing that was unique about Kingston, it's the first upstate city to do ETPA, but then they also attempted to do a rent decrease which had never been done before. So that's why that's under heavy litigation right now, but this year, the Kingston Rent Guidelines Board passed a rent freeze which is fairly common for ETPA municipalities. We expect both the cities of Newburgh and City of Poughkeepsie to opt into ETPA soon as well. Property owners, I'm sure they will react negatively, but the real purpose of housing is to keep people housed. Housing should not be a commodity and it should not be treated like an investment vehicle. Housing should be a human right.

JR: Many of these cost control laws like inclusionary zoning and the ETPA look to control rents by placing caps or freezes in place. Jay Martin, the executive director of CHIP, the Community Housing Improvement Program in New York City, believes that we should instead look at the issue of housing supply.

Jay Martin: What we know about economics is that more supply will lower costs overall. Just like we saw during Covid when there was more supply, renters had the ability to negotiate with their landlords because they didn't have other people coming into the market to rent the property once they left. If they left, there wasn't somebody else moving in to rent the apartment. So they said, "If I leave, then you're not gonna have somebody else rent for me. So you better lower my rent or else I'm gonna leave and you're gonna be left with an empty apartment." You don't get more housing if you regulate the rents to a point where people aren't financially making some return on the investment.

JR: The last thing we're going to go over is eviction. Eviction is when a property owner gets a judgment of possession from a New York court, resulting in the tenant having to vacate the property. This can happen if the tenant refuses or is incapable of paying rent, is conducting criminal activity in the unit, or is destructive to the property along with other reasons. 

Recently there has been a push at the local and state levels for more eviction protections. One of the more controversial housing laws that has been proposed at the local and state level in New York is good cause eviction which would modify eviction protections for tenants and place a limit on rent increases. Good cause essentially establishes a short list of reasons a tenant can be evicted and states that any reason outside of that list is null. In addition to adding eviction protections for tenants, proponents see good cause laws as a way to slow down displacement, with some proposed laws preventing the displacement of tenants due to unreasonable rent hikes. 

The state version of the bill defines unreasonable as a percentage exceeding either 3% or one and one half times the annual percentage change in the Consumer Price Index for the region. Eviction reform laws have had trouble getting passed in the state and have struggled in New York's court system as well. We spoke with Jay Martin for his thoughts.

JM: What I would argue that programs and proposals like Good Cause do, they don't actually incentivize the production of more housing. They actually disincentivize it, so they reduce the amount of income that a property owner could make by building or maintaining more housing. That actually exacerbates the supply. Any new person that comes in now is gonna face a market that's highly constricted because no one's gonna build new housing there. There's 3.3 million units of housing in New York. One million are rent-stabilized. Those 3.3 million units pay extremely high rents because there's a million units that don't pay higher rents. They're actually, the rents are regulated. If the cost continue to go up and the rent expenses are capped, there will have to be a cost paid somewhere else down the line in the market.

JR: Outside of the cost control measures, many property owners against good cause also state concerns about the difficulty of evicting unruly tenants. But it should be noted that the current version of the bill states that illegal or destructive behavior, as well as conduct that interferes with the comfort of the landlord or other tenants, is fair grounds for eviction. So that's a lot of housing law we just went over. 

Remember that a lot of these regulations happen at as local of a level as possible. If Kingston puts a limit on rent hikes or Syracuse incentivizes new housing construction, nothing happens to your rent or your property in Troy. But what this does mean is that one of the biggest expenses in your life can be directly impacted by your local officials. All the more reason to vote, talk to your representatives, and organize around issues that you find important. The possibility of change is right there. That's all for today. Keep learning, and I'll see y'all later.

Watch the Video

NY&Addressing Rent Costs and Tenants Rights in NY | NY& Renting

In this episode of 'NY& Renting,' Raga Justin delves into the current tenant rights in New York and explores the potential laws that might impact your rent or property costs. 

From fundamental tenant rights to local government actions on affordable housing, we unravel the complexities of New York's housing landscape.

Learn about your rights, the impact of inclusionary zoning, rent stabilization, and more.