Kingston Becomes First Upstate Community to Pursue Rent Stabilization

Kingston became the first community in New York to pursue rent stabilization under a new state law when it requested a study last month to determine how many of its rental properties are vacant.

The city of 23,000 must prove less than 5 percent of certain rentals are vacant for the law, the Emergency Tenant’s Protection Act (ETPA), to apply. If a municipality’s vacancy rate falls below this, its rental market is considered stressed, and the municipal government can declare a housing emergency, which requires the county to create a board to regulate the rise of rental prices.

Kingston has received bids from private firms seeking to undertake the study, and the Mayor’s Office recommended the city hire the Center for Government Research (CGR), a non-profit consulting firm based in Rochester.

The firm put the cost of the study at “about $32,000,” according to Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, and the Kingston Common Council now must allocate these funds, which Noble was confident would happen because of the Council’s broad support for the ETPA.

The Council adopted a resolution May 7 endorsing the ETPA as the law was being discussed in the state legislature. The ETPA was enacted in New York City in the late 1960s and was later made available to Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties. It became an option for all communities in the state when the legislature modified the law in June.

Hudson adopted a similar resolution, but it is doubtful their vacancy rate will be below five percent. New Paltz also adopted a resolution supporting the ETPA.

Kingston Common Council Majority Leader Renny Scott-Childress agreed enacting the ETPA was a priority for the city.

“We’d like to find out as soon as possible whether or not we qualify, and if we do, then that lets us know whether we need to consider…adopting the law,” he said. “If we don’t qualify, that tells us we need to do something different.”

Ulster County undertook a rental housing survey in 2017 that suggests Kingston’s vacancy rate more than meets the ETPA’s requirements – it found vacancies were below one percent. However, the city needs to prove less than five percent of the rentals meeting the ETPA’s other criteria are vacant

The study also pointed to other statistics suggesting a stressed rental market – rents in the county rose 47 percent from 2002-2017, according to the study.

Kingston is well aware it has a problem. The Common Council held a series of seven housing hearings last spring to try to better understand the issue.

If Kingston’s rents are regulated by a county board, they would start at their current price, but increases would be limited by an equation taking into consideration the region’s Cost of Living Index increases.

A big question is how many units in the city would fall under the ETPA. Only properties built before 1974 with six or more units would be rent stabilized — the units that must have less than a five percent vacancy rate.

Mayor Noble said there are about 1,800 units in 80 buildings falling under this definition, but at least 500 of those units are public housing controlled by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to which the ETPA would not apply. More units are rent subsidized “Section 8” apartments, and Noble said the vacancy study would determine if the ETPA would apply to these.

Alex Panagiotopoulos, a founding member of the Kingston Tenants Union (KTU), put the number of units the law would apply to between 1,000 and 1,500 out of 6,000 in the city.

“This law protects a fraction of the people who need protection in Kingston, but it’s something,” he said.

KTU had the opportunity to see the bids from firms seeking to undertake the vacancy study, and Panagiotopoulos seemed optimistic about what firm was recommended, calling it “a really qualified” firm that “has done local work.”

KTU will be canvassing apartment complexes the law might apply to over the weekend, Panagiotopoulos said.

“Our first priority is to get the right information in the hands of residents,” he said.

Major real estate interests with properties in the city may try to spread misinformation, he added.

Kingston has historically seen its rental prices rise by a couple of percent a year, but the Great Recession pummeled the housing market, and prices have only just recovered, Mayor Noble said, but now the overall market is increasing more rapidly.

“What we’re seeing is apartments are being flipped, and then someone moves out, and what was an apartment for $900 is remodeled and is now being marketed for $1,400,” he said. “Those are where were seeing some pretty dramatic rent increases.”

Noble said the most effective rental protections the state passed were not in the ETPA, but instead were other parts of the omnibus rental bill the state Legislature passed in June.

These protections automatically apply to the entire state and make it harder for landlords to evict tenants, easier for tenants to collect security deposits, and requires a month’s notification if rent is going up more than five percent or if a landlord intends not to renew a lease.

The omnibus law also includes protections for renters of mobile home lots.

The Kingston Common Council will decide whether to allocate the $32,000 for the vacancy study in September, and the study itself will take two months, according to Mayor Noble.

Correction: This article has been updated to state Alex Panagiotopoulos said the firm CGR has done local work, not that it is a local firm, as well as to clarify five percent of units built before 1974 in buildings of six or more units would have to be vacant for the city to declare a housing emergency, not five percent of all rentals.

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