If there is any woe that has come to define conversations about Tompkins County, it is housing. Succinctly, there aren’t enough places for people to live, especially with the population seemingly still growing, and the places people can find to live are too expensive for them to afford.
With that housing struggle has come a push for more development, likely the defining mantra of the Svante Myrick administration in the City of Ithaca. That has even spilled into neighboring municipalities as well, either to the chagrin or rejoice of residents, without much middle ground. More recently, though, there has also been a legislative push, both locally and at the state level, to advocate on behalf of tenants and offer more wide-ranging protections.
Locally, that effort has taken the form of a long examination of source of income protection (SOIP) legislation by the Tompkins County Legislature; rather inexplicably, the lack of SOIP meant that landlords could refuse to rent to a tenant based on their income stream. Often, that is used to exclude renters who use government programs like Section 8 vouchers or Department of Social Services subsidies to pay for housing. The county’s process was precluded, though, by SOIP passing through the New York State Legislature and becoming the statewide standard earlier this year. The legislature additionally passed a rent stabilization bill that applies to all buildings built before 1974 that hold more than six rental units, as well as “newer buildings that receive tax breaks for so-called affordable housing,” though the infrastructure needed to implement these guidelines, as they have been in New York City, is unclear.
Additionally, the City of Ithaca passed a slew of tenant reforms earlier this year designed to empower tenants and clarify the rules landlords must follow regarding keeping buildings up to code while increasing punishments for landlords who flaunt those rules.
But these moves were overshadowed by the June actions taken by the New York State legislature as the government’s legislative year was coming to a close. On June 13, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a batch of amendments to the Emergency Tenant Protections Act, calling it “the strongest possible set of reforms that the Legislature was able to pass and are a major step forward for tenants across New York.” They included capping security deposit amounts, protecting against large rent increases for major capital improvements to buildings or individual apartment upgrades, eliminated vacancy bonuses (which allowed rent-controlled apartments to hike rents as high as 20 percent after a tenant departure), and longer stays for eviction cases taken to court (from six months to 12 months, plus more room for judicial discretion in favor of the tenant and against “retaliatory” actions by landlords).
One wrinkle is that a municipality must have below a 5-percent vacancy rate, considered a “housing emergency,” in order to qualify to opt into the new legislation; the legislation does not automatically apply to all New York State municipalities. Nobody interviewed for this story was prepared to say whether or not they thought the City of Ithaca or Tompkins County, if either or both of their vacancy rates qualify, would opt into the programs. But it’s not out of the question that an updated study would find them both eligible: According to the Housing Needs Assessment study published in 2016, Tompkins County had a vacancy rate of 4.8 percent among its 24,000 market rate rental properties at that time, and even higher demand in the City of Ithaca would likely mean its vacancy rate was lower then and is still lower now.
The sweeping reforms mark arguably the largest single-day rental regulation changes in New York’s history, and were roundly celebrated by progressive groups who had been pushing for them for years. Newly motivated by the recently-flipped state government, which came under complete Democratic control this year for the first time since 2010, groups like Local Progress NY started publishing far-reaching policy platforms they intended to push during the legislative session. The legislation has been touted as a victory for low-income tenants, the most vulnerable population in the rental market and the ones most likely to be taken advantage of by a nefarious landlord.
It’s still early, and even several weeks after the bills passed, their implications are still unknown; Ithaca Housing Authority, one of the primary affordable housing providers and advocates in the area, declined comment for this story, citing a lack of information on the regulations. Others, too, are catching up, and it all might be a guessing game for now until whichever programs are opted into are enacted and their long-term impact on the market can be analyzed.
Naturally, landlords have not been particularly pleased with the advent of the new regulations, even as their impact remains unclear. Surely, the landlords have some bias in how they view the new regulations. For them, the regulations are, at best, a new annoyance. At worst, they take money out of landlord’s pockets and put them in precarious positions when dealing with troublesome tenants. But if they end up helping apartment consumers, the objections of landlords will likely be outweighed by the overall benefit to the community.
Brian McIlroy, president of the Landlords Association of Tompkins County, was hesitant to embrace the changes because he felt they may be an overcorrection during a period when the rental market landscape is shifting anyway. The general sense among landlords, it seems, is that the regulations are either intentionally or unintentionally punishing them; obviously, housing advocates disagree.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen until it actually happens, but our biggest concern is: everybody knows there’s a problem, but if you try to fix it with certain legislation, there could be unintended consequences,” McIlroy said.
The two sides differ on one crucial topic, though: whether the rental regulations will have a cooling impact on affordable housing ownership and development, an important ripple to monitor in Ithaca. McIlroy said he thought that certain regulations, if opted into, would discourage affordable housing development and make it less financially feasible for landlords. Specifically, he mentioned capping the initial security deposit and a longer eviction process with more litigation options for tenants. Of course, the counter to that is if the demand is strong enough, which public perception indicates, that could overpower the regulatory hoops and still prove valuable for developers and landlords.
McIlroy said he’s also nervous that the new rules will come into play during this time of relative transition for the area, as the drive to develop continues and construction either finishes or comes closer to finishing. This will bring thousands more units into the area, and he said he feels there might be an easier way to measure demand once that has calmed down and those units have been absorbed, instead of trying to hit a moving target while so many projects are either in progress or being discussed. That may be the most salient point of all: The options will likely be available to municipalities here, and with several of them trumpeting their progressive mettle and Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca at the forefront, there would be significant pressure to adopt such measures. McIlroy also mentioned a softening of the market, the full extent of which isn’t quite clear yet, though it has been talked about before.
“We’ve already been hearing where landlords are having trouble renting places that they haven’t before, or they’re having to lower rents,” McIlroy said. “There are already impacts and they’re not done building yet.”
If Tompkins County does choose to enroll in some or all of the new programs, the coordination of that would fall to the Office of Human Rights, currently led by interim director Dr. Kenneth Clarke. Clarke envisioned his department’s role in maintaining order between landlords and tenants in the context of state regulations as advisory; since the office’s Memorandum of Understanding with the state lapsed in 2008, it doesn’t have the authority to investigate such matters anymore. It can, though, act as a liaison between citizens and the state, something Clarke said his office, which has had its role frequently challenged in the past, can adequately handle.
“Housing and employment are the two major issues that people come with complaints about, a number of whom will file complaints, which we help them do with the state,” Clarke said. “Then, we can follow up with them about the disposition of their situation.”
It’s certainly true that there’s ample investigation to be done in the next several months, and while landlords are certainly anxious about the regulations on the horizon, local housing advocates say these are welcome new steps that will benefit the dynamic between landlord and tenant. With the loopholes cleaned up, there’s optimism
“Some of these loopholes basically say ‘We recognize that the way the law has been written created an undue burden on tenants, and we are adjusting these laws to either close loopholes or modify existing regulations in such a way that the burden of adjustments are balanced more effectively between tenant and landlord or tenant and owner,’” Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles said. "This will certainly be an adjustment for everyone, and because the amendments are so nuanced, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation. It will be important for all groups to review these amendments carefully."