With local good cause eviction laws overturned, pressure turns to state pols

Originally published in Crain's New York Business

Although good cause eviction has been hitting several roadblocks in the courts, this will not stop it from being a major priority in Albany next year, according to people on both sides of the hot-button issue. Rather, those roadblocks could increase the pressure on state lawmakers to act.

Officials in Newburgh and Albany had both enacted good cause eviction laws for their cities that limited the grounds landlords could use to remove their tenants, and both cities then faced lawsuits over the legality of the measures. Judges ruled against the cities in both cases this year, writing in similar decisions that their good cause eviction legislation had violated state property laws and declaring it null and void.

"It should be noted that the state's eviction laws do not exist solely to protect tenants," Judge Sandra Sciortino wrote in the Newburgh case, overturning the law in late November. Rather, the laws are meant to balance "the rights and needs of both tenants and landlords," she said.

Judge Christina Ryba overturned Albany's good cause eviction law in June, although that city appealed her ruling, and the appellate court has allowed the law to remain in effect during that process. A decision on the appeal is not expected until next year.

Enacting good cause in the five boroughs specifically has generally been viewed as a tough sell based on a 1971 state law prohibiting the city from enacting stricter rent regulations than the state has on the books. Smaller cities and towns now appear to be in a similar position, based on the recent court rulings.

Passing good cause statewide, which would prevent landlords from denying lease renewals to tenants without a specific reason, such as not paying rent, has long been a priority for tenant activists, and these recent rulings have done nothing to change that, according to Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All. They simply clarify that good cause needs to be done at the state level rather than at the local level, she said.

"This is all just making completely clear that we need to pass it in Albany," she said. "Good cause is legal. There's no constitutional problem with it. The lawsuits are entirely about whether the city councils have authority or not."

The controversial proposal did not make it through the Legislature this year, but Weaver is still optimistic about its chances going forward, particularly given the extremely sharp rent increases many New Yorkers have recently faced.

Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, strongly opposes good cause eviction but agreed that it would emerge as a big priority in Albany next year, echoing Weaver's point that it will either happen at the state level or not happen at all given the recent court rulings.

"It was good that the court decisions made it very clear that municipalities did not have the power to do it," he said, "but now it basically focuses all attention on the state Legislature to deal with this particular issue."

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who chairs the housing committee, said passing good cause statewide has been a goal of his for years. He is more confident the Legislature can get it done next year, thanks in part to the courts making it clear there is not really another option.

"Many people had thought they could protect themselves. They could protect people in their localities going city by city and town by town," he said. "We've now had two judges in a row say pretty definitively that it's inconsistent with the real property law, so that is a clear indication to many of us that the state ought to be taking action."