Rent Stabilization is at Risk in New York City

Photo via PropertyClub

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In the midst of our nation’s housing crisis, local news in New York City is rife with articles and reports about the state of rent regulatory legislation. On February 20th, the Supreme Court announced that it would refuse to hear two new cases brought forth by landlords of rent-stabilized buildings in Long Island City and parts of Manhattan.

At the center of the cases, the petitioners wished to challenge New York’s rent-stabilization laws that have been in place for over half a century, specifically targeting recent amendments made in 2019 to strengthen tenants’ rights.

Housing rights organizations across the city rejoiced at the Court’s decision. The Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC, and law firm Selendy Gay supported the Court’s decision in a joint statement, describing it as “in line with well-established precedent” and putting an end to cases attacking New Yorkers’ legal protections.

New York State’s rent control laws may be safe for now. However, it would be akin to “burying one’s head in the sand” to behave as if SCOTUS’s decision has ensured the safety of rent-stabilization laws indefinitely. This caveat is especially pertinent to New York, home to the most expensive city to rent in nationally, whose rent-control and rent-stabilization laws continue to be some of the most important municipal policies that protect individuals from housing insecurity and unsafe living conditions.

For the uninitiated, the difference between rent control and rent stabilization is simple but important to identify. Both rent control and rent stabilization work as regulatory efforts to protect tenants who reside in privately owned buildings.

Rent control has largely become less relevant in today’s rental market in New York City. “Rent-controlled” apartment buildings were oftentimes designated as such after the housing shortage following World War II. They usually pertain to apartments built before 1947 that operate under the maximum base rent program, which allows landlords to increase rent to the minimum level of income necessary for maintenance and building improvements.

Rent stabilization likewise sets limits on the amount that your rent can increase each year. Additionally, it ensures that tenants are “entitled to receive required services, to have their leases renewed, and may not be evicted except on grounds allowed by law.” If these rights are violated, tenants can file a complaint with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

Rent control and rent stabilization hold very significant roles in the New York City housing market, and have historically played an important part in establishing tenants’ rights in the city. In fact, New York City was one of the first cities in the United States to enact rent-freezing laws that prevented landlords from price gouging in the face of a market boom.

In an interview with author Robert Fogelson regarding his book “The Great Rent Wars,” journalist Peter Dizikes charts how the emergence of rent control legislation in New York City happened during World War I. Money was redirected from local buildings and infrastructure toward fighting the war, which led to building shortages and inadequate housing conditions. This housing shortage led to significant city-wide rent strikes. “In light of this unrest, New York’s state legislature took action. Although then controlled by Republicans, who traditionally favored building owners, the legislature passed a rent-control program designed to keep costs down and limit baseless evictions,” Dizikes writes.

These laws helped countless New Yorkers secure adequate and affordable housing. They also served as a regulatory framework for the fight against homelessness and poverty, as well as the beginning of a movement that advocated for housing as an essential right, especially in America’s most expensive city.

As many local experts have noted, the supply of affordable housing in New York City is not meeting the needs of the people who live here. The average rent for an apartment in Manhattan hit a record high of $5,588 in July of 2023. Protecting tenants from falling into housing insecurity and homelessness should be at the forefront of our municipal politics, as many low-income New Yorkers are at risk of unsafe housing conditions otherwise. 

In an article for Spectrum News NY1, Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, stated, “We’re not building enough housing to meet the needs of people who want to live here, and the people who that harms the most are people who are living in unprotected housing, who are low income and can’t afford the rent increases.”

The extremely clear and obvious first step to resolving this issue is to regulate the landlords that attempt to price gouge New York residents. Rent stabilization in New York City effectively prevents people from being pushed into housing insecurity and homelessness. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of New York residents, the future of rent regulatory programs could lie solely in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Landlord advocacy groups like Rent Stabilization Association and Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) have continuously challenged rent stabilization laws in judicial spheres. Their argument is that landlords and private property owners are being deprived of their Fifth Amendment right to maintain private property: “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” 

However, time and time again, these defenses fail to accrue their desired results. Back in October of 2023, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to New York’s rent stabilization laws, which aimed to eliminate a cap on rent for over a million apartments in New York City alone.

But the concern lies in the fact that, although these cases were dismissed from the Court’s docket for the time being, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas expressed a desire to review similar cases in a different context in the future, possibly implying that they have some merit.

Justice Thomas stated that these cases were rightfully dismissed due to the petitioners’ “generalized allegations about their circumstances and injuries.” However, he admitted that he would like “in an appropriate future case…[for the Court to] grant certiorari to address this important question.”

These statements by Justice Thomas have raised concern. If an appropriate case is brought to the attention of the Court under similar circumstances and claims as these, there is no telling whether SCOTUS would dismiss it in a similar manner, placing a substantial amount of New Yorkers at risk. The highest Court of the land and, in my view, the least democratic branch of the federal government, currently holds a conservative supermajority, and it’s unclear whether they will protect the low-income tenants of New York if the decision comes down to them.