EDITORIAL: Move cautiously on addressing rental crisis

Schenectady City Hall is seen here.

Schenectady City Hall is seen here.

One can’t help but sympathize with residential tenants who are seeing huge increases in their rents, some as high as $200 per month.

Combined with inflation driving up the price of everything from gas to food, and salaries not keeping up with the cost of living, many people’s finances are being squeezed at all ends and meeting where they’re most vulnerable — the need to maintain a roof over their heads.

It’s always easy, particularly in this case, to look at their landlords as the villains — raising the rents on their properties at a time when people can least afford it, putting families at risk of being put out on the street or at the very least being forced to search for lower-cost apartments in a tight market of rising rents.

But landlords have faced their own hardships over the past 2 1/2 years of the COVID crisis that can’t be dismissed.

Not only were many tenants who faced hardship given a reprieve from paying their rents and from being evicted during much of the pandemic, but landlords’ expenses for maintenance and repairs of their properties rose during that time.

Need, not greed, is likely fueling many of the rent increases we’re seeing.

Combined with inflation and the loss of rental income over many months, many landlords have struggled to pay their mortgages, taxes and other bills, making them victims of this crisis too.

It’s tempting for government to want to step in and fix everything for everybody, just as some officials in the city of Schenectady are considering, such as by limiting landlords’ ability to raise rents.

But the problem is far more deeply rooted and complex than a local government can expect to fix on its own.

And whatever solutions city officials come up with to resolve a temporary situation out of compassion for renters could have long-term negative impacts on both landlords and tenants.

For an example of an attempt at a solution that backfired because a local government stretched the boundaries of its authority, look at the state capital, where the city of Albany’s Good Cause Eviction law was recently tossed out by a state Supreme Court judge. The law stipulated that landlords could not evict a tenant or refuse to renew a lease without meeting criteria from a list of 10 conditions. The law also limited rent increases to 5% in most situations.

The judge sided with a group of landlords who brought suit over the law. Among the reasons the judge cited in her ruling to overturn the law: It undermined the rights of landlords to seek redress in the courts, and parts of the law were in conflict with existing state rental laws.

State lawmakers have been trying, without success, to pass a statewide version of a good-cause law but have met with opposition from landlords and have been unable to agree on a reasonable compromise.

If state lawmakers can’t do it, with all their resources and in the face of a statewide rental crisis, how can a local government be expected to fashion a law that covers all the issues related to this topic while at the same time adhering to all state laws and protecting everyone’s rights?

That’s not to say city officials should ignore the problem.

But they shouldn’t be so quick to impose solutions that might turn out to be both unfair, illegal and unsustainable.

Efforts to opt into the state’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which would limit rent increases on certain properties, may be ineffective or only affect a few properties.

Any efforts to limit rent increases to a certain percentage could well be overturned in court if they violate landlords’ property rights or state law, as happened in Albany.

Conducting rental surveys and setting up rental oversight boards could prove time-consuming and expensive, and a local board’s decisions might not hold up to challenges in court.

Certainly, the city could consider providing rental assistance and assistance with bills, as well as other incentives to tenants and/or landlords to help alleviate rising rents.

But if county, state and federal money can’t be secured for that purpose, that money will have to come from local residents’ property taxes. Can the city afford that with so many other pressing needs?

If there is to be a local effort, it should be directed at state lawmakers, who can address this problem that plagues many cities throughout the state, not just Schenectady.

All state officials, including the governor, comptroller and every single member of the state Assembly and Senate are up for re-election this fall. This is the time to demand action to address this problem.

Even though they’re not officially in session, lawmakers can hold hearings and call witnesses from both sides to discuss their hardships and to consider solutions legislators can put into law. That might include setting aside money for municipalities to offset rent increases.

If nothing else, city officials can hold discussions, but should hold off on passing any kind of local legislation until they’ve fully investigated all possible options and until they’ve cleared their actions with the state.

A bad solution or one that can’t be enforced could make matters even worse.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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