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The Real Estate Industry and New York Progressives Are Headed for a Showdown

Progressives and socialists in the New York State legislature are bracing themselves for a titanic fight with the state’s real estate industry and landlord lobby over “good cause” eviction protections, a long-standing goal of the housing movement.

New York State senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, democratic socialists who support good cause eviction legislation, at a protest against former New York governor Andrew Cuomo in August 2021. (Mark Kauzlarich / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This year, New York State politics will, in many ways, look radically different.

For the first time since 2010, a state legislative session will begin without Andrew Cuomo looming over it. Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace last year, was a remarkably dominant force and the primary roadblock to any sort of progressive change in the state. For much of his tenure, Cuomo helped Republicans control the state senate. He was close to the real estate and finance elites who influenced much of the policy made.

Now, Democrats control both chambers of government and a more left-friendly governor, Kathy Hochul, is in power. Hochul is a centrist but not of the vindictive variety; already, progressive and leftist Democrats have won concessions from her, including more funding for rent relief and reform of the parole system. Hochul, who was once a conservative Democratic congresswoman, is more cut from the cloth of center-left governors like Phil Murphy and Gavin Newsom these days. She is someone who can be worked with — and against — when need be.

But the left flank of the Democratic Party, along with democratic socialists, do have a titanic fight in Albany ahead of them. For the fourth year, they will try to pass the “good cause” eviction bill, which would give tenants across New York the right to renewal of their lease in most cases, cap rent increases, and stop landlords from removing a renter without an order from a judge. Landlords would need to prove a good cause — like not paying rent — to evict tenants.

It would, in essence, bring a version of rent stabilization to tenants almost everywhere. Passing it would be something of a capstone for the modern tenants’ rights movement in the state, which has spent many decades on the defensive after winning gains in the early part of the twentieth century. Landlords, property owners, and the real estate industry writ large fiercely oppose good cause, as do more moderate Democrats and all Republicans. Even with a large progressive bloc in Albany, along with a handful of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, good cause is not guaranteed to pass this year.

Several localities, including Albany, have passed versions of good cause. The state bill would apply everywhere. New York City, with its majority-renter population, would have the most to potentially gain if it becomes law.

The urgency to pass the legislation is greater than ever because the statewide eviction moratorium, instituted in the early days of the pandemic, is expected to expire. Hochul will likely not renew it. Tenants’ groups hope, instead, that good cause can be passed in the coming days or months to stem the tide of evictions. While New York is flush with federal cash and increased tax revenue, working-class residents in occupations hit hardest by the pandemic, like tourism and hospitality, have struggled mightily.

Landlords, both large and small, believe the legislation would erode rental housing stock — and cut into their profits. They’ve argued less rental turnover would mean fewer available units. Boosting tenant protections, they contend, will limit the building of further housing stock. Landlords would have less recourse against tenants who engage in destructive or alienating behavior but otherwise pay their rent.

It’s true that New York City, in particular, must build more housing to combat an acute affordable and eviction crisis. What’s not so clear is how legislation that would simply give tenants more leverage would further curtail development when a version of good cause has existed in New Jersey for a long time without dire consequences for landlords or developers. One reality that both supporters and detractors of good cause might acknowledge, at least behind the scenes, is that the legislation itself is not terribly radical. A right to a lease renewal is not mass rent control, and it will do nothing to reregulate the hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized units that were lost from the system in the last twenty years, when landlords were allowed to take apartments out of the rent-stabilization system altogether. (This changed in 2019.)

At the same time, good cause will be a lifeline for the working-class. The real estate industry, hungry to chase out poor tenants in prime areas and rent vacant units to affluent professionals, knows this. The last time good cause was fiercely debated in Albany, in 2019, it was Cuomo and Democrats in the state assembly who knocked the bill out of a final legislative package that strengthened tenant protections statewide.

The state senate, the more progressive of the two chambers, will probably pass the bill. Its fate will be decided in the assembly, which has seen less turnover in recent years. Lawmakers there tend to be more corporate-friendly, and young progressives and socialists have less clout. Upstate Democrats, more willing to do the bidding of the real estate industry, are likely to present an obstacle to downstate progressives who are hungry to move the bill.

In part, the struggle will be intense because the real estate industry only started playing defense a few years ago, when Democrats finally overcame Cuomo’s opposition and took full control of the state legislature. There is no more Republican conference and no more Cuomo. For millionaire and billionaire donors, their only hope is Hochul, who is happy to fundraise from them, and Carl Heastie, the cautious assembly speaker.

The housing movement and their allies in the legislature aim to move Heastie. Seeking reelection this year, Hochul would be under great pressure to sign good cause into law if it arrived on her desk. The fate of the legislation will also show how far the progressives in New York have really come. Will reactionary forces be able to defeat it? Or will tenants gain the kind of leverage in the state capital they never knew before?