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You Send the Bill to the Governor's Desk
None of this is that hard
Explaining New York State politics to ordinary people has always been a challenge. This is because New York State politics has its own demented gravity, and only so much of it can change at any given time. For reasons I still do not understand, the fiscal year begins in April, not July—a vast majority of states across America kick off their fiscal years in the summer—and this means state legislators and the governor must negotiate a new budget in the middle of the legislative session. Then this legislative session magically ends in June and all the legislators go home for six months. Policy, quite literally, can’t occur once the weather gets warm enough. Sometimes, the governor and legislative leaders will participate in “special sessions” where politicians head to Albany to do something highly important, like raise their own pay. And did you know the state budget is where all the big policy changes usually go? If you can’t force Scarsdale and Great Neck to build a few more apartment buildings or make it harder for landlords to evict tenants while you’re hashing out, in the literal dead of night, how $229 billion gets spent, tough. Wait until 2024. Or 2034.
Five years ago, I ran for State Senate. Some people reading this know that, others don’t. I’m fine that people have moved on. I very much enjoyed the campaign and made a lot of friends who are in my life to this day. I will absolutely not run for office again. My career is proceeding nicely and I do not want to go to Albany. I’m rather certain, had I won, I would have gone crazy by now, or been trying desperately to run for something else. The smart ones usually leave.
This is all a shame because the state government, in almost every instance, determines what does and doesn’t happen in New York City. It’s trite but true: the city is a prisoner of the state, and has relatively little policy autonomy. Want to raise or lower taxes? Ask Albany. Change the tenant laws? Ask Albany. Want a speed camera on your block? Ask Albany. Want those plastic bags back at Foodtown? Ask Albany. Want to keep the New York City Department of Education from descending into chaos every few years? You know what to do.
The housing crisis persists. Buying a full-fledged property has become almost impossible for any working or middle class person in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, and rents have continued to skyrocket. Creating more housing supply, in the long-term, will help very much. Tenants could also enjoy quite a bit of relief if landlords were limited, like they are with rent-stabilized apartments in the five boroughs, in how much they could raise rent each year. On June 8th, just before the legislative session was set to end, the majority leader of the State Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie proclaimed they had reached a grand bargain on addressing New York’s profound housing affordability crisis. It included much of what many housing interests—tenant activists, developers, YIMBYs—had demanded out of state government:
After months of deliberations both during and after the budget process, the Legislature was able to work toward an agreement on historic rent protections as well as a massive and transformational housing program, that includes:
the Homeowner Protection Plan;
Housing Access Voucher Program;
Affordable Housing Rehabilitation Program;
conversion of commercial buildings;
the extension of 421-A;
strong labor standards;
raising the individual apartment improvement cap;
a Dilapidated Apartment Repair Program;
the creation of a local affordable housing plan;
the creation of the Office of Civil Representation;
a program to provide legal representation for eligible individuals in eviction proceedings; and
good cause eviction legislation.
Unfortunately, it was clear that we could not come to an agreement with the governor on this plan. It takes all three parties - the Senate, the Assembly and the governor - in order to enact legislation into law. There is no debate - New York is experiencing a housing crisis. All three chambers must immediately redouble our efforts and come up with a plan that the governor will sign into law. This plan must prioritize not only the construction of new units of affordable housing but also robust protections for tenants including good cause eviction.
The legislature, despite allegedly having the votes to do all of this, did not pass the housing package. The governor, Kathy Hochul, is not in favor of some of it, so therefore their hands were tied. Oh well. Try again next year, and maybe Hochul will be in a better mood or something. But don’t fret too much. Heastie and Stewart-Cousins want you to know everyone’s efforts must be redoubled. You never know what’ll happen next.
Once upon a time, in the distant year of 2019, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins were referred to as Albany’s “wonder twins.” Democrats had won a majority in the State Senate for the first time in a decade. Assembly Democrats, with so many bills that had been bottled up by Republicans in the higher chamber, were eager to go to work. And, indeed, with Andrew Cuomo as governor—the governor who was the most imperial and politically sociopathic New York had ever known, the governor who spent his days and nights dreaming up ways to destroy allies and enemies alike—they set about doing much of it. Cuomo didn’t want to reform the criminal justice system or make it easier for people to vote or make it so landlords couldn’t rip apartments out of the rent-stabilization system altogether. The legislature made him do it by passing the bills and daring him, very publicly, to veto them. There were less Democrats in the Assembly and Senate then, but they were riding high in the glow of the anti-Trump years, when activism was peaking and even Cuomo believed he needed to tack left to have a future in national politics.
In 2023, the Assembly and Senate have veto-proof supermajorities. The Senate is particularly proud of this fact and will tout it often. Albany’s logic, however, dictates that both chambers should grow more timid, even in the face of a governor who barely won her re-election. Why should they cower? Well, gosh, she could veto the package. Maybe. The same governor who couldn’t get a chief judge confirmed to the Court of Appeals is now feared enough that an enormous legislative package with a host of very popular ideas—even the real estate lobby wants a new voucher program for the homeless and millions of tenants would be excited to know their rent increases next year could actually be limited by law—must be shelved indefinitely.
What if the legislature decided, since they had all of these supposed votes lined up (maybe it’s all a bluff, but it would be a dubious one), to send the whole housing package to Hochul’s desk? What if the legislature, composed of elected officials who allegedly have constituents who care about them, applied actual pressure on the governor to sign all of it into law? What if they did a bit of political organizing? Absent that, what is the plan, exactly? Hope Hochul has an epiphany next January? What is the tangible purpose of a supermajority? Everyone in Albany knows Hochul is against Good Cause eviction, the sweeping legislation that would limit rent hikes statewide. Everyone, in 2019, also knew Cuomo would have been content to let New York have the worst discovery and election laws in America until the sun swallowed the Earth. Sometimes, political struggles have to happen. Sometimes, you actually have to try to win them.
Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, didn’t like my idea for this piece. (I first broadcast it on Twitter, because that’s how life still works.) “So the idea is to get her to veto it? We didn't have the override votes which means her threat of veto was real and would effectively kill good cause for good. Once passed, vetoed and not overridden how would we ever get any form of good cause done... and really take exception to you saying we have been less aggressive and assertive...just not true. or based in reality,” he wrote in an email.
I told him both chambers have been less aggressive relative to 2019.
Murphy wrote back: “first of all there was so much backlog to get done in 2019 and i would argue more reporters actually covering albany....but we were certainly aggressive this year, LaSalle, Driscoll and others....Clean slate, beat back charter expansion, and major changes to bail reform.,passed major legislation on choice, voting, guns, environmental, fully funded foundation first time ever.....you can do better than this lame simplistic take.”
Indeed, the state legislature has been busy! They’ve gone against Hochul enough. Just not when it comes to housing in New York—and not when it probably matters most, given the rut we’ve found ourselves in. I’m sure summer (and fall) vacation will be fun.
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