ALBANY, N.Y.—An Albany County judge has struck down that city’s municipal good cause eviction law, potentially dealing a blow to good cause eviction legislation around the state as tenant advocates and landlords continue in a tug-of-war over housing rights both statewide and in Ithaca.

In the decision, New York State Supreme Court Judge Christina Ryba wrote that state law preempts two main sections of the Albany law, the sections dealing with “necessity for good cause” and “grounds for removal of tenants.” Attorney Ben Niedl, representing the plaintiffs (a group of Albany-area property owners), told Spectrum News that it was a victory over “really intrusive interference with [the] ability to interact with tenants.”

Respectively, those two clauses stated that landlords could not remove any tenant from housing except for with a court order affirming that the tenant has missed rent payments (as long as the debt isn’t a result of a rent increase or pattern of rent increases that are “unconscionable or imposed for the purpose of circumventing the intent of this article”). The courts would have been in charge of determining if a rent increase was indeed unconscionable, but a further explanation is below.

“Local Law F expands the rights of a tenant by specifically stating ‘notwithstanding that the tenant has no written lease or that the lease of other rental agreement has expired or otherwise terminated’ the landlord must establish ‘good cause’ in order to evict the tenant,” Ryba wrote. “The court finds that imposing a ‘good cause’ requirement as a prerequisite to eviction when the tenant has no valid lease is in direct conflict with [state law].”

You can read the full decision at the bottom of this article.

Coincidentally, the judge drew differences between the Albany ruling and a similar issue that arose in Ithaca in 2000 in a court case known as Zorn v. Howe. The latter case dealt with evicting tenants on the grounds of illegal drug use and possession at a rental property, and was decided in favor of the landlord in the case, Elayne Zorn.

The court ruling was made in a New York Supreme Court on Thursday. New York’s court system is confusing because the state-level Supreme Court is not the highest ruler, unlike at the federal level in the United States. In New York, that title belongs to the New York State Court of Appeals, where this case may eventually be headed. But at this time, the Albany ruling doesn’t hold any bearing on any other municipal law, meaning Ithaca could theoretically still pass a similar law.

Good cause legislation has had a rocky road in Ithaca. It seemed to have decent momentum last summer and fall, over the strong objections of local landlords, and got as far as discussions at the Planning and Economic Development Committee before eventually petering out early this year, with fears of preemption fueling its demise.

However, there are still at least four Common Council members who have voiced support for the legislation (Ducson Nguyen, Robert Cantelmo, Jorge DeFendini, Phoebe Brown) as well as newcomer Tiffany Kumar, who made it a central part of her campaign for a council seat. Council member Cynthia Brock has also expressed support in the past, though she also sought to change the good cause bill after introducing it. Acting Mayor Laura Lewis has expressed hesitance towards good cause, instead embracing measures like increasing funding for tenant’s right to counsel programs.

Whether or not there’s an appetite for the law remaining after the Albany ruling, though, remains to be seen, as does how much legislation Ithaca lawmakers are willing to pursue short of good cause.

“It’s certainly a disappointment to see the court rule against Albany,” Cantelmo said. “I am hopeful the legislature will take this issue up again next session at the state level. There is still, however, a lot we can do locally to promote tenant protections and housing access including expanding the right to counsel program, conducting the necessary vacancy study to opt into the ETPA, and putting a conversation about zoning reform on the table to make it easier for folks to build ADUs and duplexes so our housing supply isn’t so constricted.”

Activists sound even less likely to let the ruling impact their local push. The Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU) has been the most vocal group in favor of good cause eviction, culminating in rallies held last year outside City Hall.

According to ITU organizer Genevieve Rand, who also works on housing advocacy for Citizen Action of New York, ITU’s hope is bolstered by a nuanced look at the judge’s ruling. While Ryba did strike down two of the law’s clauses, she didn’t go so far as to endorse all of the challenges that had been lodged against Albany’s law, namely that it was unconstitutional and violated rent control laws.

“If it was struck down on that basis, it would essentially mean that municipalities can not legislate eviction or rent at all,” Rand said in the wake of the decision’s announcement. That would have been a far more damning result for renter advocates and for the future of municipal good cause eviction legislation.

“The rent law one, in particular, we were really, really worried about, because if that one was found substantial, then it would mean you can’t regulate evictions and so on at the local level, and that would be really, really bad for tenant organizing people,” Rand said. “The major things we were worried about, sweeping statements about the power of municipalities to regulate evictions, weren’t upheld.”

Other municipalities seem to be striking that same tone — that the Albany ruling is a setback and perhaps a portender of things to come, but not a death blow. The City of Kingston, for example, has already stated publicly that the Albany ruling does not impact its law (apologies for the paywall).

“Everybody who is in favor of this already knew that lawsuits could be brought against it, in the same way lawsuits can be brought against any law that you pass,” Rand said. “It’s still worth doing anyway, with the expectation that it’ll get challenged and the possibility that it’ll get struck down, because a) it’s important to protect tenants in any way we can for as long as we possibly can, and b) if we establish the precedent that we won’t pass tenant protection legislation because we’re afraid of real estate suing the city, that means we are never going to pass any tenant protection legislation.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com