Cynthia Nixon, the former actress and longtime public education advocate who is mounting a primary challenge to Governor Cuomo, announced a progressive housing plan that continues her disciplined assault on the governor’s dismal track record from the left. The plan, called Rent Justice for all, outlines many long-sought after reforms to protect renters across the state. A few real estate publications, including the Real Deal, have been quick to point out that landlords won’t like it.
I think this is partially true. Some landlords will absolutely hate these proposals and many of those landlords are quite powerful. However, I’m here to argue that I believe there are other landlords that should welcome stronger tenant protections — the majority of landlords, in fact.
Small, local landlords own more than half of the 2.18 million rental units in NYC and most have very little in common with bigger developers, publicly traded property management companies, or private equity firms that have flooded parts of the NYC market. However, small landlords don’t come close to having the same political power, which often means their interests are ignored or actively subverted.
Despite this contradiction, these more powerful interests continue to successfully flatten the perception that all landlords are the same homogenous blob (buffered by the generally uncritical real estate press in NYC). This narrative is obviously false, but big developers and Governor Cuomo trade in it freely. For example, the Governor’s Affordable New York plan does nothing for small landlords and gives away millions of public dollars to major developers (while failing to provide enough actual affordable housing).
This narrative maintains the strict landlord vs tenant political divide that feeds the toxic decades-old political status quo in New York: A small contingent of highly dedicated tenant groups fight to maintain tenant protections while the affordable housing stock slowly disappears. Small landlords get squeezed. Big developers get more tax concessions and rezoning opportunities. And the affordable housing crisis continues on unabated.
Breaking this toxic political status quo is the first step towards addressing the affordable housing crisis on a meaningful level. Housing advocates can start by rejecting the narrative that all landlords have the same shared interests and recognize that small, local landlords are hurt by this dynamic too.
We must do more to convince small landlords that they have more cause to work together with tenants. There is no meaningful solution to the affordable housing crisis that doesn’t incorporate small landlords and doesn’t make it easier for them to operate. As Matthew Desmond points out in his Pulitzer Prizing winning 2016 book Evicted, 3/4 of all affordable housing in the US is provided by small, local landlords. We must make the argument that these landlords will benefit from stronger tenant protections.
In previous blogs, I have written how I think a universal rental control could work, but to sum up quickly, I stress that it would not represent a simple extension of the current system (to be clear, I support the measures in Ms. Nixon’s proposals but think they must go further). It would be an entirely new system that would also need to offer more diversity in housing options (from co-living to senior living) and would absolutely involve trade-offs that no doubt would appear to be painful, particularly for some older rent controlled tenants. Measures to protect these tenants would have to be included (preferably with federal aid). Clamping down on the small minority of tenants that abuse the current system would also be a necessary step as part of a new system. This is no small task and I understand that many readers will be skeptical of even engaging in this discussion.
That being said, the first step in a larger reform is making the easy argument that small, local landlords will have more success by working with tenants rather than bigger landlord interests. Here are three reasons why I think this is true:
1. Simplifying compliance reduces costs and hassle
It is no secret that managing multiple classes of tenants makes compliance more challenging for small landlords. Many of these types of owners are landlords as a second source of income and are not professionally trained or resourced. This invites a lot of mistakes that can turn into costly problems that hurt both parties.
Having all renters fall under the same level of protection would remove a number of the steps that most small landlords trip over. Rather than having to follow every evolving law, loophole, MCI exemption, or annual RGB guideline and see how that impacts certain units, both sides would know exactly what to expect and what is required under a universal system.
A system where protections are offered across the rental landscape for every unit would potentially alleviate a lot of the tensions between rent stabilized tenants and landlords, particularly on fixing infrastructure within units. Much of the distrust that arises between both parties comes from a landlord’s reasonable need to make upgrades to a unit and a tenant’s reasonable fear that this will trigger a rent increase that may lead to a larger decontrol. Without the fear (and perverse incentive) of vacancy decontrol and bonus, both sides can operate in good faith.
It could also offer tenants more options. In many cases right now, landlords and neighbors change while a rent stabilized tenant remains. In a classic example, a tenant might age while their neighbors get younger. This might not be the ideal environment for that tenant, but moving to a better-suited location is virtually impossible financially. Knowing that a system is in place that could provide a similarly priced unit (again, presumably with some federal or state aid) with similar long-term protections could make moving more attractive.
2. More tenant protections mean fewer expensive eviction processes
Eviction is an ugly, painful process for all parties involved. However, the loss of shelter is simply nowhere near the loss of rental income. Greater tenant protections mean more resources to keep tenants in their homes — and to keep the rent checks coming to landlords.
This is already happening in NYC. Mayor de Blasio signed a Right to Counsel bill last year that guarantees tenant legal aid in housing court. These resources mean that fewer disputes will lead to evictions (which could save the city $320m a year). Intervening earlier in the cycle gives the tenant more opportunity to receive the necessary help to maintain good standing with their landlord.
No doubt there are bad actors in real estate (more on that later) but for the most part, small, local landlords aren't; they don’t have the resources for a lengthly eviction fight and don’t want it to get to that point. Landlords also generally don’t want to kick people out of their homes outside of the most extreme cases. They want peace and quiet.
More resources for tenants means a greater ability to intervene at critical junctions when a tenant may be at risk of falling behind on rent payments. Every landlord can support a process that appeals to their humanity and their bottomline.
3. Discouraging bad actors from the market opens up space for more local landlords
One of the biggest, if perhaps abstract, benefits of universal tenant protections to small, local landlords would be the shift in the market that would transpire over time.
The vast commodifcation of the American housing market caused the Great Recession. Instead of solving that crisis by reducing the incentives to speculate on homeownership, the economy has morphed into exploiting rental housing.
Large investment companies, private equity firms, and foreign capital all compete on small-scale properties in NYC. It’s difficult information for the casual observer to find, but, particularly in neighbors facing displacement concerns, these entities are forcing out small landlords who are often local, community-connected operators (which is why I have been stressing the ‘small, local’ modifier.)
The idea that the best, highest use of capital is virtuous on its own merits doesn’t hold up when you see the practical implications of this trend in housing. In many neighborhoods across NYC, poorer residents (many of them minorities) are being replaced by wealthier (largely whiter) residents. (This is a particularly shocking reality in California as well.) Many of these properties sit vacant as investment shields or as Airbnb cash cows.
NYC is already one of the most economically stratified cities in North America. Continuing this trend (which mirrors other trends of disinvestment in public institutions and local infrastructure) is simply not sustainable. The long-term viability of the city, let alone a given neighborhood, is at risk if it is simply closed off to all but a select wealthy population.
NYC is a city of immigrants, entrepreneurs, and artists — many of them start out poor. Many of them start out renting from small, local landlords. This can not end.
I will continue to advocate for more public housing and alternative forms of ownership, but I also believe that the private market must play a central role in property management in NYC. But this must be in the form of local landlords. New Yorkers should be able to cycle into ownership and renting in their communities. As housing advocates, we must acknowledge the importance of local landlords and reach out to them as allies.