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Rent protections in Hudson Valley face legal challenges as activists press on

Artist's conception of what a neighborhood housing development might look like at the  former Ulster County Jail site in Kingston.
Ulster County Government
File Photo
Artist's conception of what a neighborhood housing development might look like at the former Ulster County Jail site in Kingston.

The future of fair housing laws and rent protections in two Hudson Valley cities is in the hands of the courts.

Earlier this year the city of Kingston became the first upstate municipality to opt into rent stabilization. Activists say rents had been rising with hikes as high as 70%. In November the Kingston Rent Guidelines Board enacted a landmark 15% rent reduction.

Aaron Narraph Fernando with the activist group For The Many says the victory for tenants was short-lived. By mid-month, a state judge had ordered oral arguments in a lawsuit brought against the board by landlords, which called the rent reduction "illegal."

"We were feeling our confidence," Fernando said. "Until the landlords, they had decided to sue the city and sue the board itself, claiming two different things. One, they were claiming that, that how the city opted into rent stabilization was illegal, they are claiming that the numbers that they, the city used are wrong. They're claiming that they like knock on all the doors of landlords in the city to identify their vacancies. And all of a sudden these phantom vacancies have appeared in some of these buildings. You know, obviously, I think it's a little too coincidental to be true. But the other reason that they were suing was over the reduction itself, claiming the reduction itself is illegal. And what happened was they got an Ulster County Supreme Court judge to agree to that, and temporarily blocked the reduction from being enforced."

Fernando argues the judge did not correctly interpret the law.

"It's a very complicated old Tenant Protection Law and it can be difficult to grasp sometimes. So, we are pretty confident that on appeal, this could be reversed. And we're currently assessing our options to see what we can do on the legal front. But I think in the meantime, it's just important for people to know, one, who is bringing this lawsuit these are landlords like Rich Lanzarone, who is the head of the Hudson Valley Property Owners Association, people whose only interest is continuing evictions of their tenants and continuing outrageous rent hikes."

Lanzarone argues the Kingston rent guidelines board took it upon itself to create "affordable rents," while its true mission shoud be to adjust rents in relation to changes in cost.

“I was a renter myself, actually, for 23 years," Lanzarone said. " And believe me, there many a month when I couldn't make the rent, or I couldn't make the whole rent. Kingston has actions to actually try to attempt to reduce rents, by 15%, based on I don't know what data, you know, listen, landlords, costs have gone up too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of fuel oil has gone up, nearly 60%, the price of natural gas has gone up over 30%. Electricity has gone up over 20%, our taxes have gone up. Our cost of maintenance for, because these properties, remember, these are it only affects buildings that are built before 1974. So these are very old buildings, require a lot of maintenance. So the course of that maintenance, and repairs gone up. And so our costs have gone up like everyone else's.”

In another blow for tenants’ advocates, last week a judge struck down Newburgh’s good cause eviction law, ruling it didn't jibe with state property laws. Fernando says that makes the case for statewide “good cause” protections.

"So you can't be evicted without a good reason to keep tenants in their homes," Fernando said. "So we don't keep having city by city squabbles in local courts, when we just have one statewide standard that keeps everything the same in every city."

Newburgh's year-old law required landlords to show good cause to evict tenants, even if their leases had expired, and demanded landlords justify any rent hike above 5 percent during eviction proceedings.

Lanzarone contends the focus should be on what is causing New York's housing crisis:

"It's really because of layers and layers of regulation that really prevent adequate buildings being built," said Lanzarone . "And so, you know, the solution to a problem caused by too many regulations is not going to be solved by passing or imposing additional regulations, like good cause or rent stabilization, which will only serve to discourage additional investment."

Fernando says For The Many and other advocates are still figuring out their options.

"We're still gonna be having workshops with Kingston tenants, we're going to be having one next Wednesday evening, and we're going to be asking tenants to come to our office and Kingston at 13 Grand Street and and hear how they can file a fair market rent appeal to try and get some some money back and get their rent reduced, even while we wait for this process to be figured out in the courts," Fernando said. "So we're gonna keep doing that in the meantime, and on the legal front, we'll have to see what happens."

Lanzarone says he expects the issue to be decided early next year.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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