Now that Democrats have a supermajority in the State Senate, could this lead to more rent reforms benefiting New York City tenants?
The Democrats' victory in the New York Senate could present an opportunity to expand upon the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, the landmark rent reform legislation passed in 2019, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer with the firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
But in the short term, a top priority is likely to be protections for tenants impacted by the coronavirus and ensuing economic crisis. There are two major pieces of legislation currently in committee, both of which are designed to offer NYC tenants relief: the Emergency Housing Stability and Displacement Prevention Act and the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020.
The former would prevent all eviction and foreclosure filings for commercial and residential tenants throughout the pandemic and for a year following, and the latter would cancel all rent for tenants, as well as mortgage payments for small homeowners, for the duration of the Covid-19 state of emergency, plus an additional 90 days.
Tenant advocates hope this legislation will prove more successful than a previous Covid rent relief program, which prioritizes households with the greatest economic need and requires renters to file an application proving they meet specific criteria.
“The bill they passed for tenants to apply for relief didn’t work well,” Himmelstein says. “Word didn’t get out, and tenants couldn’t figure out how to use it. This new legislation doesn’t seem to be tied to economic distress, so it should be easier for people to figure out.”
That said, it’s possible these bills will be heavily negotiated, and end up being passed in different form.
Beyond Covid-related relief, there is opportunity for Senate Democrats to build on HSTPA by passing a tenant protection bill that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without good cause without good cause, which would extend certain rights to market-rate tenants that are ordinarily reserved for rent-regulated tenants.
The Senate supermajority could also end up passing legislation levying additional taxes on New York State billionaires, which would likely have benefits for NYC tenants.
“Some of those funds could be used to help people with issues paying the rent, and help landlords who are struggling, too,” Himmelstein says.
Finally, the new supermajority may see fit to reinforce certain aspects of the HSTPA, including its stance on charging broker fees to renters.
“The idea that tenants, instead of landlords, have to pay the broker when renting an apartment was in fact eliminated by the legislation,” Himmelstein explains. “The secretary of state began enforcing it, but brokers sued and the secretary agreed, pending legislation, to stop enforcing it. That’s why tenants are still being charged.”
Tenant advocates argue that this practice is illegal, and brokers who charge tenants risk being sued. Democrats in the state legislature could use their new supermajority to clarify issues such as these.
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Sam Himmelstein, Esq. represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts, and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.