Last month saw lawmakers make the most significant overhaul of New York’s rent laws in over a generation. On June 14th, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. The change is nothing short of historic and has brought much welcome relief to the 2.4 million people who live in nearly one million rent-stabilized apartments in NYC. The changes will address years of rampant abuse by landlords and protecting the city’s renters.
Understandably, the city’s landlords and developers were less than pleased. They argue that the changes will lead to a deterioration in housing quality as they now have little incentive to renovate buildings. Wherever you stand on the argument, it is crucial to understand what the changes mean. Below is a full rundown on what’s changed with the new rent regulations in NYC.
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Changes that Apply to all NYC Renters
The new laws were position towards making changes to rent-regulated and rent-stabilized apartments. Market-rate apartments have been largely left out. However, there has been some spillover that applies to market-rate apartments, so it’s not a total loss. The following changes apply to all rental units in the city.
Security deposit and other lease procedures modified
All security deposits are now limited to one months’ rent and cannot be requested until the tenant has moved in. Landlords must also return the deposit within 14 days of the tenant vacating the premises. Along with an itemized statement covering any deductions made. Applies to all units, whether they be rent-regulated or market rate.
Pre-payment of Rent no longer allowed
Landlords will now need to be more discerning when approving potential tenants due to the revised law restricting the ability to offset questionable applications with the pre-payment of rent. It has been common for landlords to offset default risk by collecting additional security or having a tenant pre-pay rent protecting the landlord from loss. Conversely, this would be a welcome change for renters looking to hold on to more of their money.
Greater protection against evictions
Tenants now have much tighter housing security and protection against unlawful evictions. Landlords found guilty of forceful eviction, or illegal lockout can now be charged with a misdemeanor from $1,000-$10,000 per violation. Landlords fear that these changes will make it harder to remove tenants with behavioral problems. This could lead to issues with the other tenants and the building’s finances if a tenant withholds rent. These changes will complement a 2017 law that allows tenants a right to free counsel if they face eviction.
Higher tenant protection statewide
Landlords wishing to raise the rent by more than 5%, must now give their tenants at least 30 days’ notice. This notice period rises depending on how long the tenant has been in place. For those with a tenancy or lease of one-to-two years, 60 days’ notice must be given. Those who’ve resided for two years, or are on a lease agreement for that long, must be given 90 days’ notice. Applies if the landlord does not intend to renew the tenant’s lease. These protections apply to renters statewide, whether they be rent-regulated or not. Late fees have also been capped at 5% of the monthly rent or $50 (whichever is lesser). It can only be charged if the payment is late by five days or more.
The blacklist has been banned
The notorious “blacklist” has been banned. A list composed by the New York State Office of Court Administration, which listed every tenant who’d been sued in the housing court. Landlords could buy this data and use it to screen out anyone they think might be a trouble maker. Needless to say, if you showed up on the list, then you had a tough time finding a rental in NYC. Under the new laws, the practice of keeping any sort of blacklist is banned.
Cap on application fees
Application fees charged by brokers and management companies for apartments capped at $20. This includes any background check and credit check fees.
Changes that Only Apply to Rent-Stabilized and Rent-Regulated Apartments
Co-op and condo conversions are now tougher
Previously, the approval of only 15% of tenants was needed to make a building conversion in a rent-stabilized building. That percentage is now 51%. Additionally, the old laws allowed investors to purchase 15% of converted apartments if the tenants declined to purchase them. The new laws now require tenants to purchase them before the state attorney general will sign off on any conversion. Critics of the changes say that this new threshold effectively puts a stop to any future conversions. However, those in favor of the changes counter-argue that conversions are still an option. Just so long as most of the tenants agree to it. The changes are meant as a way to put a stop to landlords selling apartments to outside investors.
Preferential rent is now the base rent on lease renewal
The practice of preferential rent has met a lot of criticism over the years. But while it hasn’t been eliminated, it has met with some important changes. The old laws allowed landlords to offer new tenants a preferential rent lower than the legally allowed rent. Once a lease renewal came up, the landlord was free to jack up the rent to the registered limit. The new laws now establish preferential rent as the base rent, which won’t change even upon lease renewal. However, tenants will still be subject to normal increases from the rent guidelines board. The only circumstance now where landlords can raise the rent to the maximum is when the tenant permanently moves out.
High-rent and high-income deregulation comes to an end
A loophole in the old laws allowed landlords to deregulate an apartment once it had reached a certain price threshold. That limit was $2,774, and it usually wasn’t hard for landlords to find ways to raise the rent over time. That practice has now been done away with entirely.
The new changes also got rid of another less commonly used rule that allowed for deregulation. Previously, landlords could deregulate if they could prove the tenant earned more than $200,000 a year for two straight years. Just like the high-rent rule, that option has now also been axed. Taken together, this means that it will be some time before landlords can deregulate apartments in the future. We can expect a slowdown in transactions on multifamily properties as the market digests the new legislation.
Caps placed on individual apartment improvements
A major bone of contention with tenants has been apartment improvements (IAI). Previously, landlords could spend thousands of dollars on renovations on apartments. Once complete, they could then pass on a fraction of that expense to tenants in the form of rent increases. The state would usually approve this practice without looking into whether the tenants had been overcharged. The new laws now only allow landlords to pass on $15,000 worth of renovations over 15 years. When broken down, this works out at a monthly rent increase of $89. Additionally, the state housing agency will now review and audit IAI’s more closely.
Landlords argue that this removes all incentive for them to renovate their properties and keep them up to date. But Democratic legislators say that IAI’s were being abused by landlords who would report inaccurate costs. Landlords have also been known to use the old laws to make tenants pay for maintenance rather than renovations. The changes are meant to take the laws back to their original purpose. That being to make improvements, not maintenance. Lawmakers say that the $15,000 cap is more than enough to make modest improvements. Still, many now fear that landlords will only do the bare minimum to keep an apartment in order.
Caps placed on major capital improvements
Similar changes also apply to significant capital improvements (MCI). Landlords could previously renovate common areas and spread that cost among all the building’s tenants. The new laws now provide tighter regulations on this practice. Including limited approvals for work, limited spending, and a prohibition on allowing MCI’s in a building that has hazardous violations. Also, even if an MCI is approved, the landlord can now only raise the rent by 2% of the original amount, down from 6%.
Changes to the four-year “look back” rule
The old laws allowed rent-regulated tenants to request a rent history going back four years. Meant as a way to check that their landlords weren’t overcharging them and to hold them accountable if they were. The new changes now allow tenants to request a full rental history. Landlords can now also be held responsible for any overcharges made over the last six years.
An end to owner-use loopholes
Under the old laws, landlords could evict rent-stabilized tenants from multiple units to use as their residence. This practice was often done as a way to evict tenants and raise rents. Under the new rules, any tenant who’s lived in their units for at least 15 years will be protected from owner use eviction. Landlords can now only claim one apartment for owner-use. They must also prove that there is a clear and immediate necessity for it.
An end to the vacancy/longevity bonus
Landlords used to be allowed to raise the rent on a unit by up to 20% once it’d been vacated. This allowance has been completed axed, along with the longevity bonus, which allowed rents to be raised based on how long it had been vacant. However, landlords are still allowed to charge the maximum legal rent so long as there has been a vacancy.
Exceptions to the New Laws
No changes to the New York Affordable Housing Program
One area that did not change, and needs more clarification, is regarding the New York Housing Program. Formally known as the Section 421-a Tax Exemption program, this allows developers a tax exemption so long as they reserve 30% of a project’s square footage for affordable units. There was some confusion over this when the draft of the reform bill accidentally placed market-rate apartments under permanent rent regulation in new buildings receiving the tax exemption. Later “fixed” to allow deregulation in units under the New York Affordable Housing Program. Provided, of course, that they had reached the $2,744 rent threshold.
What’s in Store for the Future?
Tenants across the city can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that these changes won’t be changing anytime soon. Changes to rent laws would previously sunset every four years, which is now no longer the case. However, just because they won’t expire doesn’t mean they can’t be repealed or amended. Those in the real estate business are not happy with the changes and are sure to rally their deep pockets to try and get the changes overturned. Real estate insiders argue that the new laws shouldn’t be made permanent as the ability to regulate rents is contingent on the existence of a housing crisis.
As for tenants, they may try to push things further. They got most of what they wanted in these changes, but not all. Next year they may renew a push for a law that would create a rent cap for all renters. Only time will tell.