Hundreds of thousands of households across the state already owe back rent as a result of the pandemic, and face eviction when protections expire on Jan. 15. The Good Cause Eviction bill would give tenants the right to a lease renewal in most cases, and prevent landlords from removing a renter without an order from a judge.

Adi Talwar

The line outside Bronx Housing Court in 2015. Advocates worry the system could see a slew of evictions soon, as state protections expire this month.

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For 19 years, José Bejar and Patricia Bejar have lived on the first floor of a two-family home in Bayside, Queens. They have paid the rent on time each month, they say, even during the pandemic, when José’s salary was reduced and the monthly fee increased. They even have purchased their own heaters for the winter as well as kitchen flooring, carpets and refrigerators.

But in August they received a letter from the landlord: They had to leave in 90 days.

Bejar’s family paid their rent until October, when they decided to fight the eviction and demand repairs. They had no heat; the windows needed fixing; and they were missing a carbon monoxide detector, stove and oven. Last month, a Queens judge ordered the property owner to make the repairs, but the looming eviction process can commence once state tenant protections end on Jan. 15. The Bejars may have little recourse, because tenants in non-rent stabilized apartments, like buildings with fewer than six units, have no right to a new lease. Property owners can order them out, no questions asked.

“We are in limbo. I don’t know what is going to happen now,” said Patricia Bejar.

A piece of state legislation known as the Good Cause Eviction bill would give tenants like the Bejars the right to a lease renewal in most cases, cap rent increases on existing tenants and prevent landlords from removing a renter without an order from a judge, even if their lease has expired or they never had a lease. Property owners would need to prove “good cause”—like nonpayment—to kick tenants out.

The bill has emerged as a key demand of many tenants’ rights advocates, while landlord groups have launched an aggressive campaign to kill the measure. It is among the highest-profile fights facing Albany in this legislative session: progressive Democrats want to pass Good Cause before New York’s eviction moratorium ends Jan. 15, and two Senate committees held a hearing on the measure that kicked off Friday morning.

It is not yet clear if legislative leaders and officials will support the bill. Attorney General Letitia James and Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin have both publicly backed the idea, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has sponsored a similar measure, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Kathy Hochul have not.

Some influential tenant advocates and lawmakers say they hope backing off their demands for an eviction moratorium extension could make Hochul and Heastie more amenable to Good Cause.

Jose Bejar, a 78-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, said the legislation would help him and his wife hold on to their home. “We do not have a lease but I can show you my bank account history and you will see that I pay my rent by check,” he said.

Bejar’s landlord, and the law firm representing him, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story. Legal Aid’s top Queens housing attorney, Sateesh Nori, said the landlord spoke with him before hiring a lawyer and said he wanted the Bejars out so he could sell the building.

“Under the law, he doesn’t need any reason,” Nori said. “The only reason he needs is ‘there’s no lease.’”

Nori said property owners looking to sell their buildings can force tenants out to make the properties more attractive to buyers. In other cases, new owners can abruptly increase rents or deny a new lease to their tenants. That makes renters casualties of such home sales, Nori said.

“You can’t just evict someone because of a business decision,” he added.

About half of New York City’s apartments do not fall under rent-stabilization rules and tens of thousands have been removed from the stabilized rolls since the 1990s, meaning those tenants have no guarantee of a lease renewal or dramatic rent hikes.

More than 152,000 rent-stabilized apartments were deregulated from 1993 to 2018, and property owners managed to remove another 8,000 units from rent-stabilization via vacancy rent hikes just before landmark tenant protections took effect in June 2019.

Landlords and their representatives have fought the Good Cause bill, likening it to universal rent control that strips owners of their property rights. They need to increase rents to cover the costs of a mortgage, rising property taxes and water bills, say members of the landlord group Small Property Owners of New York (SPONY).

“Good Cause Eviction legislation would compromise a small property owner’s ability to cover the basic costs of providing safe, quality housing for New Yorkers, which will ultimately reduce the supply of rental housing at a time when what we really need is more housing choices for people, not less,” said Joanna Wong, a Manhattan landlord and a SPONY member.

“Small property owners are gasping for air,” added Lincoln Eccles, a Brooklyn landlord and another member of the group.

But the bill’s backers say large corporate landlords are the biggest beneficiaries from the current arrangement, which enables them to take over property portfolios and jack up rents or push out tenants. A group of Brooklyn tenants rallied in October to highlight the actions of their new landlord, the firm Greenbrook Partners, which has moved to evict or raise rents on residents across their new buildings.

At that rally, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, the chair of the Senate’s housing committee, said the bill would block investors from scooping up buildings and ejecting tenants.

“You cannot be evicted from your home unless your landlord has good cause to do that. It’s a simple concept,” Kavanagh said. “This idea of eviction for profit is a relatively new thing in New York in the past decades. Many predatory equity companies have cut their teeth on it. Many have become thirsty for that kind of profit.”

The bill could help tenants, particularly low-income residents, at a precarious moment across New York City: Hundreds of thousands of households already owe back rent as a result of the pandemic and face eviction when protections expire on Jan. 15.

Good Cause would not help them pay their arrears, but it would prevent many renters from losing their homes and further fueling a potential homelessness crisis.

A recent report by the Community Service Society (or CSS, a City Limits funder) found that rent continued to increase for low-income New Yorkers despite the pandemic, contradicting a popular narrative that rents had declined as a result of the crisis. The report, based on a survey of low-income tenants, found that rents rose for 43 percent of those living below the federal poverty line, with the increases disproportionately impacting low-income tenants of color. Monthly prices increased for 49 percent of Asian tenants and 41 percent of Black and Latinx renters compared to 32 percent of white tenants, CSS found.

In the case of the Bejar family, their rent rose from $1,900 to $2,100 in 2020, and despite José  having lost his full-time job and having just come out of knee surgery, they still paid.

“We even stopped eating, but we paid him the rent,” José Bejar said.

But this is not the case for many New Yorkers. Across the state, 27 percent of low-income tenants “owe back rent, with Black and Latino tenants—particularly women—at the greatest risk,” reads the CSS report.

The state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), designed to cover the bankrent of New Yorkers who owe due to the pandemic, has failed to cover about two-thirds of its nearly 300,000 applicants. There are already 192,000 nonpayment eviction filings in housing courts, the CSS report adds.

READ MORE: Letitia James Backs ‘Good Cause’ Eviction Bill in Run for New York Governor

Meanwhile, 36 percent of low-income respondents and 22 percent of moderate- or high-income respondents reported to CSS that they were concerned about losing their home when the moratorium expires.

“All indications suggest that if the eviction moratorium expires, housing courts reopen, and no additional eviction protections and rent relief are passed, the impacts will be most severely felt by low-income tenants and communities of color,” the report warns.

Approval of the Good Cause Eviction Bil is one of the recommendations made by CSS to curb the potential eviction crisis, along with statewide Right to Counsel and a winter eviction moratorium like the one that was passed in Seattle.

Good Cause protections already exist in a handful of New York towns, including Albany, which enacted a version modeled off the state bill last year.

“The tenant should have some protection,” Nori said. “And hopefully something like this is going to happen in Albany, but we don’t know. We’re hoping.”