SCHENECTADY — With the cost of living on the rise, the Schenectady City Council is looking into adopting some type of rent stabilization initiative to help ease the burden, alarming landlords who say they are facing struggles of their own due to the fallout from the pandemic.
Councilman Damonni Farley on Tuesday brought the conversation to the council’s Planning & Development Committee after hearing from a number of constituents struggling to pay their rent after recent increases — some as high at $200 a month — and researching how the worst inflation in decades is impacting those already struggling to make ends meet.
“People in the community are really hurting,” Farley said. “This isn’t a conversation we can have in abstract ways. This is real — the way that is impacting people in their material conditions and in peoples’ lives.”
Farley pointed to recent report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found the Consumer Price Index grew by 8.6% in May, and that the price of food has increased by more than 10% between April 2021 and April 2022.
He also pointed to a report compiled by The Washington Post using data from the real estate research firm CoStar Group published in April that determined rent in Schenectady County has increased by 9.8% since 2019 to $1,302.
The rising cost of living, Farley said, is forcing people to make decisions they shouldn’t have to, including whether to buy food or pay bills, and will ultimately lead to increased homelessness.
A 2020 report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office backs up the claim. The report found that a $100 increase in median rent was associated with a 9% increase in homelessness, even when other factors, including wages, unemployment and poverty, were factored in.
He said he would like to see the council come up with “mutually beneficial” ideas that would ensure people can stay in their homes without negatively impacting landlords who may be struggling, and asked if the city look could possibly incentivize property owners to keep rates low.
“People are losing their houses and their housing,” Farley said. “It’s something that we’re hearing in all corners of the city.”
Chris Morris, president of the group Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change, said rent stabilization unfairly takes control away from landlords and takes away personal responsibility from tenets. She acknowledged that rent has increased in recent years, but rejected the idea that landlords across the city are unfairly increasing rates — a move she said would negatively impact landlords, particularly if they have a reliable tenet.
“I can’t even imagine a landlord considering that,” she said.
But it’s unclear what a mutually beneficial solution might look.
Councilwoman Doreen Ditoro said she was against the city restricting how much landlords can charge to rent, adding that many landlords are still struggling to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic.
“We need to look at the landlord situation. We don’t know what they’re facing at this point, maybe coming off of three years of COVID with no rent,” she said. “There’s a lot of variables here that we need to talk about. I don’t think there should be rent caps for personal property. I don’t think that’s right.”
Council members discussed a number of ideas, including opting into the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, a 2019 state law that allows rent stabilization protections to be extended for certain housing in municipalities with a housing vacancy rate of 5% or less.
But whether the city would be allowed to opt into the law and how many units would actually qualify for rent stabilization is unknown.
Under the law, the city would have to complete a vacancy study on its housing stock. If the study determines that vacancy rate is 5% or less, the city can then declare a housing emergency and pass a local law allowing the rent stabilization protections to be adopted.
If the law is approved, a rent guidelines board would need to be established, which would determine what percentage landlords would be able to increase rent.
But the law only applies to buildings with six or more living units constructed prior to 1974, dramatically reducing the number of units that would be eligible for rent stabilization.
The U.S. Census Bureau, as part of its five-year American Community Survey, estimated there were 31,819 housing units in the city between 2016 and 2020. The survey estimated the homeowner vacancy rate was 2.1% and the rental vacancy rate was 5.4%.
Still, Council President Marion Porterfield, who said rising rent is something the council should prioritize, said the law is worth looking into, even if it only applies to a limited number of housing units.
“I think it’s still a conversation that we need to have,” she said.
The council ultimately agreed to hold a town hall meeting on rent stabilization later this fall in order to gather additional input from residents, which could be used in drafting future legislation.
Morris, meanwhile, said many landlords throughout the city are still dealing with the fallout of lost revenue, which she blamed on tenets refusing to pay rent during a two-year eviction moratorium put in place at the onset of the pandemic. Rising prices and recently increased interest rates have only exacerbated the issue, she said.
“It’s certainly something we want to stay away from,” Morris said. “We have been lacking control of our business for three years now and it just keeps going in an unbalanced direction.”
Morris said SLIC is in the process of forming a taskforce that will work alongside the city to address code enforcement issues and unruly tenets causing thousands in damages. The group brought their concerns to City Council earlier this year seeking support.
“We’re finally getting some key people together to talk about this things,” Morris said. “Two of the issues are how to minimize damages and accountability.”
Farley, meanwhile, said he is focused on improving the quality of life for residents and wants the city to be viewed as an attractive place to live. He believes finding a solution to stabilize rent will help bolster the city’s image while putting people first.
“I want this to be an attractive place for development and I don’t think this is the enemy of that,” Farley said. “In fact, what I think we can do is really prioritize people and find ways to incentivize it for our property owners.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.