Ericka Johnson stands in the doorway of her apartment at Brighton Place Townhouses at 508 Brighton Ave. in Syracuse. Her son came home on September 21 and discovered the fallen in ceiling, Sept 30, 2022 Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Tenants and organizers in Central New York are focused on the twice-delayed state budget process for what might happen to “good cause” eviction protections.

The protections, first proposed as a bill in both houses of the state legislature in 2019, could allow tenants to challenge in court rent hikes and evictions. Advocates for the bill have pushed for its inclusion in the state budget after it failed to be voted on. 

The bill has taken on increased importance as tenants battle inflation and the state emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts expect evictions to rise. Syracuse has already seen 846 evictions filed this year and evictions have steadily risen as pandemic-era renters protections have eased.  

A New York Focus analysis of the executive budget found the state senate and assembly supported portions of the protections while Hochul’s budget excluded them all together. 

The proposed policy could have a significant impact for Onondaga County renters. The Pratt Institute for Community Development projects that 67% of all renter households in the county would be protected if “good cause” is codified.

“The displacement we already see in the city is creating instability in neighborhoods, which is contributing to a lot of other problems like public safety and education,” said Jocelyn Richards, a member of the Syracuse Tenants Union.

Protections in the original ‘good cause’ bill

The original bill proposed in 2019 would’ve allowed tenants to challenge in court an eviction without a good cause. A judge would rule on the validity of the eviction. 

A tenant could also challenge in court rent hikes greater than 3% of their original rent or 1.5 times the rate of inflation. Challenges would be based on whichever number is higher. A judge would get to decide whether the increase is necessary or reasonable. 

The protections only apply to structures with more than four housing units or ones that are not owner occupied. 

How ‘good cause’ could practically play out 

The Community Service Society of New York estimates that 1.6 million households in New York would be protected from eviction based on drastic rent increases under “good cause.”

Yinhan Zhang, a doctoral student in economics at Syracuse University, said she hopes “good cause” can help keep her rent within reason. Last year, her rent increased about 40%. Zhang said she expected costs to steadily climb as they had in years prior when she saw increases of about 3% to 5% each year. 

“I was shocked,” she said. “That is a ridiculous amount.” 

If “good cause” is enacted this year, tenants like Zhang who are set to renew their lease could be allowed to legally challenge rent hikes just above 9%, according to CPI numbers calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Advocates hope “good cause” curbs nonpayment evictions in upstate New York. Nonpayment eviction filings have risen to around pre-COVID-19 levels after eviction protections expired in 2022, based on the state court system’s tracking of eviction filings.

Russell Weaver, the director of research at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said increasing rents are linked to steady numbers of nonpayment eviction cases. More than 80% of evictions filed in Syracuse City Court involve nonpayment, according to data tracked by the state court system.

Rents in Madison, Onondaga, and Oswego counties have increased nearly 30% since January 2020, according to Zillow’s observed rent index.

“Presumably, we’re all here living paycheck to paycheck and if a rent increase is too much and you can’t afford it, then that’s a de facto eviction,” he said.

Richards, the tenant organizer, has canvassed throughout Syracuse to organize tenants for the last three years. She said the bill could also help curb retaliatory evictions in the city.

Some tenants can be evicted when their lease is breached or not renewed for violating lease provisions, illegally housing others, becoming a nuisance to other tenants and staying at home after a lease has expired, she said.

These types of evictions can occur in retaliation for tenants filing reports about poor living conditions in their home with the city’s Division of Code Enforcement, Richards said.

In these cases, judges would make a determination as to whether the landlord is showing a good enough cause to proceed with an eviction.

Gaps in application

Despite the inroads advocates believe “good cause” can make toward reducing the number of evictions in New York, advocates still have concerns how the law would be applied.

Andrew Scherer, a seasoned legal scholar and the director of the Housing Rights Clinic at New York Law School, said judges could interpret the law in ways that may circumvent tenant protections.

The portion of the bill that exempts landlords of properties with four units or fewer opens questions “that are going to need to be litigated,” Scherer said.

“If landlords are going from a place where they can evict tenants for almost any reason to a place where they need to provide a good reason,” he said. “The courts are going to have to deal with that. That is a pretty major change.”

Implementing “good cause” also poses questions for lawmakers about tenant access to legal counsel. A bill in the State Legislature would expand the right to counsel laws granting legal representation to all tenants in housing court, which Scherer noted should go hand in hand with protections like “good cause.” A version of this policy was implemented in 2017 in New York City.

“The interpretation of (“good cause”) at the court level is going to be a real issue that is going to leave people very vulnerable if they’re not getting counseling,” he said. “We have legislation that requires judges to understand the law and interpret it, and only one side is coming in with lawyers.”

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