Reporter’s Notebook: How High is Too Damn High?

For at least the fourth time in the last two months, a slew of Beacon residents on Monday (Nov. 15) utilized the public-comment portion of a City Council meeting to urge its members, including the mayor, to adopt a good-cause eviction law. 

Two weeks ago, Newburgh approved a similar measure; this week it was Poughkeepsie. Hudson and Albany also approved good-cause provisions this year; New Paltz and Kingston have considered the idea. 

The law, which is modeled on a bill that in 2020 stalled in the state Legislature, would prevent evictions without a court order, prevent landlords from arbitrarily deciding not to renew leases and require landlords to justify rent increases above 1.5 percent of the consumer price index. 

Housing advocates say the law provides critical backup for renters, including young adults, low-income families and seniors, who could be vulnerable to predatory landlords. Opponents — well, I haven’t heard many in Beacon speak out against the idea. 

But the National Apartment Association, a nonprofit trade organization, opposes the mandate, which it says adversely shifts “the balance in the landlord and tenant relationship to the detriment of other residents” and “puts good residents at risk by limiting the ability of housing providers to manage their properties and act quickly to remove problem residents.”

City Attorney Nick Ward-Willis told the council last month that he doesn’t think a good-cause measure would withstand a legal challenge because state law already regulates the landlord-tenant relationship. But his comment was about the city’s legal authority, not a criticism of the statute itself. 

There are only a handful of meetings remaining this year before the seven-person City Council will reshuffle with four new members who won seats on Nov. 2. My sense is that some of the council members would like to vote on a good-cause measure in Beacon before the incumbents tag out.

Crunching the numbers

Even before the pandemic, many people with lower incomes were struggling with rent. A 2018 report by the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies found that 48 percent of all renters nationwide were “cost-burdened” (paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent), including 80 percent of lower-income renters, 55 percent of Black renters and 53 percent of Hispanic renters. A 2020 study by the center also found that renters were more likely to lose their jobs because of the pandemic than homeowners.

That was part of what created the urgency of the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has provided billions in aid in New York state since it began accepting applications on June 1.

At the same time, a statewide moratorium on pandemic-related evictions is set to expire Jan. 15. 

The state stopped accepting applications for rental aid on Nov. 14 in all but the seven counties, including Dutchess, where its allocations haven’t been exhausted, although Gov. Kathy Hochul has asked Congress for another $1 billion to replenish it. Households anywhere in the state with income between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area’s median also may still apply.

Overall, the program received nearly 280,000 requests for help and has distributed $2.1 billion. Another 87,000 applications submitted for $1.09 billion are pending landlord verification.

The breakdown of New York’s data is inconsistent. In Beacon’s 12508 ZIP code, the state says it has received 131 applications for past-due rent, 106 applications for prospective rent and 36 applications for utility debts, but I couldn’t find any dollar figures for those claims. The closest drill-down is for Dutchess County, where the Emergency Rental Assistance Program made 525 back-rent payments for $3.9 million and 397 future-rent payments for $1.4 million. 

When looking at demographics, the breakdown is even less specific. Excluding New York City, about 52 percent of applicants statewide were white; 37 percent Black and 6 percent “other.” No county data is available. 

From there, I wanted to look at evictions, but that information is, yet again, harder to parse. 

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University compiles some numbers, but its most recent figures for Beacon showed 16 eviction filings in 2016, which in this market was a lifetime ago. (The lab also notes that many evictions likely went unreported; City Court Judge Tim Pagones told me last month that there were 10 to 20 pending in Beacon, a number he characterized as typical.)

Earlier this year, Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress issued an analysis (based on National Low Income Housing Coalition data) on the disparity between rents in the region and the wages renters are earning. In Dutchess, for example, a person would need to make $28.21 per hour, or about $59,000 annually, to afford the typical rent of $1,467 for a two-bedroom apartment. The average Dutchess renter earns $13.79 per hour, or about $750 less per month than needed. 

The top 20 counties in New York state in this monthly renter gap include all nine counties in the Hudson Valley, including Dutchess and Putnam. 

Numbers weren’t available for municipalities, but it’s unlikely the situation in Beacon is an outlier. In fact, based on the incomplete figures published in last year’s countywide rental survey (six higher-density developments in the city did not respond), it’s probably far worse. 

Too damn high

Do all those stats demonstrate that Beacon needs a just-cause eviction law?

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat who is running for governor next year, was frank in her support of a statewide measure earlier this month when she channeled political activist Jimmy McMillan, saying in a speech that “paying the rent — yeah, rent is too damn high. Yes, we need to pass good-cause eviction.”

The attorney general’s voice is notable because the City Council agreed to ask her opinion to end its stalemate with Ward-Willis, the city attorney, over the municipality’s authority to enact landlord-tenant regulations.

I also asked Joey Lindstrom, the director for field organizing for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, for his assessment of good-cause. Is it a silver bullet for affordability? How effective is the law? It’s most effective, he said, when coupled with rent regulation or control.

As far as the provision in New York’s good-cause measures requiring justification of rent increases above 1.5 percent of the consumer price index, Lindstrom said he “wonders how effective the enforcement of such a protocol would be.” 

On paper, that element seems like a “reasonable policy solution,” he said, but in real life — say a landlord provides written justification for an exorbitant rent increase, how easy will it be for a renter, who may have little time and less money, to mount a legal challenge? 

Probably not very easy at all. 

The only other rent stabilization mechanism at the city’s disposal that I’m aware of is the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, which Terry Nelson, one of the soon-to-depart council members, has advocated for years. Unfortunately, the ETPA is a seemingly complex measure that would require Beacon to ask Dutchess County to create a governing board to set limits on how fast the owners of some older buildings can raise rents (although not how much they can charge).

The act would cap annual increases at a percentage determined by the local board but apply only to apartment buildings with six or more units that were built before 1974. The buildings also must not have been “substantially rehabilitated.” 

According to the city, the law would affect, at most, 110 apartments. 

It’s also worth noting that Pattern for Progress, in its third quarter regional housing report, recommends updating local zoning codes to allow accessory dwelling units and two-family homes as one of 10 strategies to increase housing stock. 

That’s an approach that Mayor Lee Kyriacou has championed, although the rest of the council, outgoing and incoming, seems to favor good-cause eviction as the first line of defense. 

It’s hard to argue that there’s an affordable housing crisis regionally, and Beacon is a hot spot, if not the epicenter. The heat is on city officials to stand up for everyday people who make everyday money and want to live here. 

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One thought on “Reporter’s Notebook: How High is Too Damn High?

  1. Beacon Mayor Lee Kyriacou and Planner John Clark, with the support of some members of the City Council and Planning Board, are determined to increase the density of Beacon by essentially transforming single-family zones into multi-family zones.

    The mayor’s agenda is spelled out in an Aug. 2 manifesto that can be found in the agenda for a Sept. 13 City Council workshop.

    The first phase relates to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and how the single-family zoning laws will be twisted and manipulated to allow ADUs “as of right” in every residential district. (Currently, a special-use permit is required.) The proposal also would allow non-family members to reside in these residential dwelling units, which can be up to 50 percent of the square footage of the existing house and can be within the house, an addition to the house or a detached structure.

    Allowing non-family members to occupy these premises is the definition of multi-family, so that alone wipes out the single-family zone. In addition, the proposal increases the square footage of these dwellings, reduces setbacks and possibly eliminates parking requirements.

    Here are a few ideas on the mayor’s wish list: 1. Allow smaller lot sizes for new homes and increased clustering; 2. Allow two-family homes in single-family districts; and 3. Consider multifamily homes in more zoning districts.

    In other words: Eliminate single-family zoning! The proposed changes to the zoning laws would be an open door to uncaring, greedy and parasitic landlords and developers. High density and overdevelopment would forever change the character and beauty of our city.

    What are the consequences of increased density? Congestion, crime, safety concerns, reduced open space, reduced green space, degraded quality of life, decrease in privacy, viewsheds blocked. And for what?

    This is not about affordability, as the mayor claims, since most agree that ADUs would not meet that criteria. So, what is the motive for wiping out single-family zoning?

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