As the April 1 deadline for New York State budget negotiations in Albany grows closer, Xiujin Zhao, a home attendant living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, grows more anxious. A small landlord, she fears some of the tenant protection measures that state Democrats are trying to put in the package will add to the nightmares she faced through the pandemic.
Zhao owns a one-family house on Staten Island, where her tenants have stopped paying rent since March 2021. That means she has been struggling to pay the more than $300,000 outstanding mortgage she has on the house.
State legislators are pushing measures in a bill informally known as “Good Cause Eviction” that would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants unless they don’t pay rent or vandalize the property.
Good Cause would also cap annual rent increases at 3%, or 1.5 times the annual percentage change in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. (In the past year of unusually high inflation, that formula would have allowed rent increases of up to 9%.)
At the same time, legislators are also trying to get more funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which was launched during the pandemic to help tenants facing hardship to pay rent but ran out of funding for new applications in January. Once tenants file an application for ERAP, any court cases against them on basis of nonpayment basis are suspended, while landlords would have a tougher time evicting tenants for reasons other than nonpayment.
These efforts have some landlords worried that Albany will offer tenants more tools to draw out an eviction case.
“Say, if the tenant pays, but only partially, it would be even tougher for us to argue for a nonpayment case in court under the Good Cause Evention bill,” Zhao told THE CITY.
A pandemic that had essentially shut down housing courts for more than a year, with backlogs as high as 70,000, and a state eviction moratorium from March 2020 to January 2022, have already brought them to the brink, landlords say, even before adding additional barriers to eviction outlined in the Good Cause proposal.
“These policies would only encourage bad tenants and make them greedier,” said Zhao. “The system is so unfair to landlords. They’d make more small landlords like me lose our life savings on our properties that bleed out money.”
In the past two years, small landlords in the Chinese community have led protests against what they believe to be a pro-tenant housing system. New York Republicans haven’t been shy about tapping into these concerns, which have helped shift several heavily Asian districts red in recent elections, along with fears about crime and education. Even some Democrats in these districts have shown greater sympathy for small landlords than many of their colleagues elsewhere.
Democratic support for tenants protection policies like Good Cause Eviction may further tilt the partisan balance as more than one Chinese landlord is running for public office in the next couple of years, vowing to change the housing policies that they deem as unfair.
At the moment, neither the governor’s budget proposal nor the proposals out of the Senate and the Assembly include the Good Cause Eviction bill itself. But all aim at some tenant protections aligning with the essence of the bill.
“What the Senate and the Assembly have both said to the executive is that if we are going to have a broader housing conversation, then we need to include protections for tenants against evictions without any good cause,” said Julia Salazar, the lead state Senate sponsor of the Good Cause Eviction bill. “I feel very hopeful.”
The homeownership rate for Asian households in New York State was 52% in 2021, the highest among minority communities, and in New York City, where ownership rates tend to fall much lower, 51% of Chinese households own a home. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, home to a large Chinese population, the overall homeownership rate hits 62%.
That fact isn’t lost on Assemblymember Lester Chang, who last year became the first Asian Republican legislator in Albany, representing a district that includes part of Bensonhurst and Sunset Park.
“In Manhattan, most people rent apartments. In Brooklyn, people own houses. That’s a huge difference,” said Chang about why he could win in the district after two failed campaigns in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has an ownership rate of just 13%. Chang added that homeowners’ tendency to push for policies such as low property taxes is more aligned with the Republican Party.
While Chang was campaigning in 2022, many Chinese landlords began to draw attention to their problems. They formed at least a half dozen ad hoc chat groups on the social media platform WeChat with names such as “landlords protesters,” each having a few dozen to 500 members (the maximum a WeChat group allows).
Zhao is one of them. Arriving in the U.S. in 2002 from Fujian province in southeast China, Zhao and her husband, who works at a restaurant, poured all their savings into buying the $547,000 one-family house in 2018. Their plan was to move in with their three young children and Zhao’s parents-in-law to fulfill their American dream.
But Zhao’s mother-in-law fell ill and had to frequently go to a hospital in Manhattan. To make it more convenient for her treatment, the family decided to rent an apartment in Sunset Park and rent out their Staten Island house. The tenants, a family of four, moved in at the end of 2018, and stopped paying when one found her working hours reduced and the other lost his job during the pandemic.
The tenant applied for ERAP twice, which helped Zhao receive ten months of rent from the program before she filed a lawsuit against the tenants on the basis of nonpayment in October 2022. But the case was suspended by the court when the tenant applied for ERAP again.
Even if the application is approved, the tenant would reach the maximum 15 months of assistance the program allows. That’s far from enough to cover the rent Zhao is owed, she says, while the protection clauses would make it more difficult for her to evict the tenants.
“I don’t know when we can get the property back. I feel we work so hard in this country and end up with empty hands,” said Zhao.
Still, the experience of other landlords Zhao got to know on WeChat helped her realize her situation is not the worst.
There is Lee Yung Lai, a 63-year-old garment factory retiree whose tenant in her three-family house in Bensonhurst hasn’t been paying rent for four years. A case Lai and her husband filed against the tenant ended up in Dec 2019 with an eviction order.
But the tenant appealed, and then the pandemic began. The appeal case is still pending and Lai claims the tenant often hurls verbal abuse at her. With her husband’s health declining, Lai’s situation makes her so desperate that she says “sometimes I think of killing myself.”
Via WeChat, small landlords have organized a few protests in front of the state governor’s office in Manhattan as well as outside the housing courts. In Queens, they have been holding a weekly rally in front of the civil court, where housing cases get heard, for more than half a year.
Recently, media reports about the hunger strike of a Chinese landlord in Oakland has been a hot topic in these WeChat groups, and some small landlords in New York have teased the idea of replicating the endeavor in front of City Hall.
Now the prospect of including Good Cause Eviction in the state budget makes the landlords even more jittery.
The bill offers exemption to landlords of properties with less than four units as long as they also live on the property. But Zhao said that won’t help her since she doesn’t live on the premises.
The bill does allow landlords to evict a tenant on the basis of nonpayment or vandalism. But Amy Lin, a restaurant worker who owns a house in Woodside, Queens, said the tenant can cause damage and then blame the landlord for it. She claims her own tenant, who hasn’t been paying rent for more than two years, has jammed a sink with plastic bags and called 311 to complain.
But even within the Chinese community, new protections are badly needed for some tenants. Just ask Zhuang, who works in a restaurant and asks to be only identified by his last name.
Zhuang and his wife have been living in a room in a house in Flushing, Queens, for four years. When the landlord largely ignored their complaints about rats, roaches and the heating supply for too long, Zhuang sued the landlord last May and has withheld the rent since.
In June, he received a termination notice from the landlord. In January, the landlord filed an eviction case against him.
With his health ailing and rents soaring in New York City, Zhuang doesn’t know where they would go if they are evicted from their $920-per-month room. “Many tenants are in a similar situation,” said Zhuang. “They don’t know what to do.”
Dao Sun, a tenant attorney at Legal Services NYC, pointed out that existing rent regulation is generally aimed at bigger landlords. Meanwhile, the government has transferred $3 billion via ERAP to landlords. “We are talking about a global pandemic. We are talking about where the entire world is shut down,” said Sun. “To say that smaller landlords were affected more than anyone else in the world, that’s kind of a stretch.”
The protesters said they realize tenants also face struggles. But what they are worried about is that the protection policies have encouraged “zuba,” a Chinese word that can be roughly translated into “professional tenants” — someone who deliberately takes advantage of the protection policies to live rent-free.
“This is spreading like a contagious disease in the pandemic because there are no consequences,” said Henry Lin, who runs a gift shop and owns a two-family house in Maspeth, Queens, where his tenant stopped paying two years ago.
The concept is rebuffed by many advocates and elected officials on the tenant side of the argument. Salazar, the state senator, said tenants may see their rent lapse because they cannot afford to pay, but they won’t do it maliciously because it would bring themselves a lot of risks such as damage to their credit score.
The so-called “professional tenant” is “a myth that has been perpetuated by the real estate lobby,” she told THE CITY.
But in the districts with large Chinese populations, even Democratic elected officials acknowledge that there is a problem. “Even when I was a reporter, I knew these professional tenants existed,” said Iwen Chu (D-Brooklyn), a state senator who worked for a Chinese-language newspaper more than 10 years ago. “In the past two or three years, because of COVID, the situation has been getting worse.”
Chu, whose district includes parts of Sunset Park and Bensonhurst and who is not a co-sponsor of the Good Cause Eviction bill, said she is all for tenant protections. But she also worries that a bad experience with a tenant will lead to small landlords pulling their properties out of the rental market. “And the housing crisis would be worse,” Chu said.
John Liu, a co-sponsor of the Good Cause Eviction bill, also said small landlords’ suffering needs more attention. Liu, a state senator representing part of Flushing, noted that any broad measures to aid tenants would inevitably leave some people behind. “They are rare. But if a small property owner gets stuck with a professional tenant, that becomes a nightmare. It’s an absolute nightmare,” said Liu.
Whether sympathy from Democratic politicians would help them to win more votes from Chinese landlords remains to be seen. But the Republicans seem to have a leg up.
Many Republican elected officials and candidates attended protests organized by Chinese small landlords last year. And Chinese landlords, who often blamed the housing policy of the Democratic Party for their woes, mobilized in last year’s elections to support Lee Zeldin, helping the Republican candidate win big in some districts with heavily Asian populations.
Their support also boosted Chang.
Chang, who showed up at many landlords’ protests last year, said he is now preparing to host two town hall meetings, one for tenants and the other for landlords of properties with three families or less, to hear from both sides. “Landlords have rights too,” he said. “They have no one to turn to.”
Even that may not be enough for some of the landlord protesters, and they have decided to take matters into their own hands. “Chinese culture is a compromising one. We don’t like to cause conflicts. But they take away our property value,” said Bernard Chow, a Conservative Party candidate for City Council in Bayside, Queens, who was owed a few months’ rent before his tenant voluntarily moved out right before the pandemic, the debt still unpaid.
“Ninety nine percent of current New York housing policies are wrong,” said Hongbao Ma, who is owed more than three years’ rent by a tenant living in his house in Forest Hills, Queens. Ma has registered to run for state Assembly next year.
A Democrat who switched to the Republican Party a few years ago, Ma hasn’t decided his party line yet. But he is certain on one thing: “I will run to eradicate professional tenancy,” Ma said.
Zhao, the home attendant in Sunset Park, has to wait for three years to become a naturalized citizen and cast her first ballot. She remembers in the early years after she was lured to the U.S. by freedom and democracy, she found the doctors in the hospital treated poor people like her so nicely, and police would stop their car to allow a group of children to cross the road.
“I thought I was so lucky to be in this country,” Zhao said. But now, that pride of living in the dreamland has been shattered. “If private property is not protected, what does it say about America?” said Zhao. “I know the tenant may be facing hardship. But why do I have to carry it on my shoulder?”