Next move uncertain for Beacon council
It wasn’t clear after the Beacon City Council’s workshop on Monday (Feb. 28) whether the council will vote on eviction regulations next week, continue to work on its draft law or seek additional legal advice.
What was clear was the dramatic difference of opinions on whether the council should proceed at all with the initiative.
Among other provisions, the proposal would require landlords to demonstrate “good cause” before a judge would consider eviction proceedings. That could include nonpayment of rent; violation of the terms of tenancy; interference with other tenants’ comfort or safety; health-and-safety violations; use of the apartment for an illegal purpose; refusal to grant a landlord access for repairs; or a landlord’s need to use the property for a family member or personal residence.
The council held a public hearing on Feb. 22 in which residents, by a 3-to-1 margin, expressed support for the measure, which is modeled after laws adopted in Newburgh, Poughkeepsie and Kingston.
But Mayor Lee Kyriacou said this week that he’s still concerned the city lacks the authority to enact the measure. The city’s attorneys said last fall that they believe the state law, enacted in 2019, supersedes local authority.
Opinions about that vary. The City University of New York’s School of Law and the nonprofit Legal Aid Society say local regulation is legal; the New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) says it’s not.
In Albany, a group of landlords sued the city after it adopted good-cause legislation, while Ithaca and New Paltz have paused their discussions. The City of Hudson, an early adopter, had its law vetoed by the mayor. A New York City resolution calls for a statewide measure.
On Monday, Beacon attorney Drew Gamils said that if the City Council enacts the measure and a court later rules for the Albany landlords, the city could voluntarily nullify the regulations. If it did not, the council would be putting the city “at very great risk, since you have a decision on this exact matter.”
The city could hire another law firm to get a second opinion. But if it proceeds without an attorney’s backing, “you’re taking the safety bars off,” City Administrator Chris White warned. Doing so would set a precedent and “could allow future councils, who might not agree with you, to do things against the advice of counsel.”
If the city faces a lawsuit because of the good-cause measure, “with the NYCOM letter and our own attorney opining that we don’t have the ability to do this, that brief almost writes itself, and I don’t know how I could respond to that,” White said.
A heated debate ensued.
Dan Aymar-Blair, the Ward 4 council member who introduced the law last year, said that “knowing that three neighboring communities have already gone down this path makes it a little more palatable to me than a situation where we’re the only city trying to do something.”
The council must also consider its fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers, said George Mansfield, an at-large member. “We collect the tax, we spend the tax. Is this a good way to spend the tax, potentially?” he asked.
Kyriacou questioned the suggestion to get another legal opinion. The city already has the opinion of the firm it has used for more than a decade, he said, likening the situation to the 2020 presidential election.
“[Then-Vice President] Mike Pence had the option of listening to some other lawyer. He chose to listen to the ones who were actual constitutional lawyers,” the mayor said. Another firm would have no accountability to the city. “They can tell you the sky is purple,” he said.
But “we are the policymaking board getting advice, and we have the choice to listen to that advice or not, or we have the choice to listen to other advice,” Aymar-Blair responded.
“We also have a duty to the people of the city who are asking for this, and the people who this would serve,” said Paloma Wake, an at-large member. “That has to be balanced with the potential fiduciary costs, and part of our fiduciary duty does include defending a law that we think is right.”
In the end, a straw poll showed the council split, 4 to 3, with the majority behind moving ahead against the advice of counsel.
The second half of the two-hour discussion was devoted to editing the draft law and focused on the balance between protecting renters without hurting smaller landlords. Aymar-Blair said he was particularly concerned after hearing comments from Barbara Fisher, the owner of Barb’s Butchery, during the Feb. 22 public hearing.
Fisher owns the Spring Street building where she operates her business. Upstairs, she rents out a three-bedroom apartment. The good-cause law caps rent increases at 5 percent, except in certain instances, such as when a landlord makes capital improvements or the housing market changes significantly. It only exempts landlords who own fewer than four apartments and also live on-site.
Fisher said during the hearing that, according to her bank, she would need to raise the rent she charges her business and her tenants by 25 percent if she ever wanted to sell the building at market value.
“If at some point I am unable to demonstrate that I’m earning enough money on the building to keep the investment safe, there are questions as to whether or not [the bank will] extend the ARM [adjustable-rate mortgage] of the loan,” she said. In the event of a sale, “they’re not going to give anybody a loan for the building that I have with the current state of rent that I have happening.”
It was still unclear when the council completed its public agenda at 10:30 p.m. (an executive session remained) whether Gamils would be rewriting portions of the law before next week’s meeting in anticipation of a vote.
Aymar-Blair asked if she could capture the essence of the council’s intention in a redraft.
“I’m concerned I don’t know the solution,” Gamils said. “This one’s hard. I don’t know what would be the compromise.”