Uncertainty over looming changes to rent laws in Albany has chilled the city’s multifamily market. But brokers, ever optimistic, see this as a temporary blip.
“I think most people are in a holding pattern until the laws get designed and people figure out what’s going on,” said Steven Vegh, a broker at Westwood Realty Associates. “I think once they pass whatever will pass, it will stabilize.”
Changes to New York’s rent laws have been widely expected since the November elections, when Democrats took full control of the state government for the first time in years. The industry got a better idea of what these changes might look like on April 9, when Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced a package of bills that would eliminate vacancy decontrol and bonuses, along with the major capital improvements and individual apartment improvements programs that let landlords increase rents based on renovation work.
Though he notably did not push forward a universal rent control bill, Heastie did introduced a measure to prevent landlords from increasing rents below the legally allowed rates in rent-stabilized units immediately upon lease renewal, as well as increasing the amount of time rent-regulated tenants can file complaints alleging overcharges.
But it is still unclear exactly what will end up passing, and this more than anything else is what is slowing down the market, brokers said.
“What I have been hearing from people is, basically, why buy now when they can wait and understand the rules in June,” said Adam Hess, a broker at Meridian Capital Group.
He compared the current moment to the period when there was a lot of uncertainty over what the state would do with its 421a program, predicting that the multifamily market would see “a lot more volume after the rules are out and they’ve been digested by people and understood.”
The market has been off to a slow start this year overall, with $2 billion in dollar volume across 75 deals and 110 buildings during the first quarter, according to data from Ariel Property Advisors. These are respective declines of 22 percent, 43 percent and 50 percent compared to last year’s first quarter.
But several brokers said the decrease in activity they are seeing has mostly been confined to buildings with rent-stabilized units, as those are the properties that will be most impacted by the new laws.
And some denied seeing much of a slowdown at all.
Aaron Jungreis, co-founder and president of Rosewood Realty Group, said that, in general, people are still eager to buy, just not as eager as they were two or three years ago.
“I’m working longer, and I’m working harder to get them done,” he said of multifamily deals, “but they’re getting done.”
Paul Massey of B6 Real Estate Advisors echoed this point. He largely dismissed talk of a slowdown and said that, if any external factor was having a big impact on the city’s multifamily market, it was interest rates, which are unlikely to rise and may even go down over the rest of the year.
The properties that his company is marketing are still getting bids, Massey said.
“If you have 30 offers, there are five or six additional people who are long term major owners who are on the sidelines saying it’s because of Albany, and I believe them,” he said, “but they’re also guys who have had a 40-year career, and they’re sick of the intensity ratcheting up on regulation.
“The new players—foreign equity, the funds—they’re all saying to us, ‘There are 10 cities that have bigger regulations around the globe, and New York’s not the worst of them,’” he continued.
One multifamily broker, who asked not to be identified, said some savvy investors were actually using the uncertainty around rent laws as an opportunity. Their thinking, the broker said, is that those properties are likely not seeing as much interest right now, which could present an opportunity to buy at a discount.
State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who is helping spearhead the effort to eliminate vacancy decontrol, said she has only had a few casual conversations with brokers and landlords about possible reforms, and did not seem bothered by talk of a slowdown in the market.
“Brokers and landlords are now holding their breath the way tenants have had to hold their breath every time rent regulations expire,” she said, “although I would say for them it’s less of a risk than for tenants.”
She thought less activity might be good news, viewing it as a sign that companies are less eager to invest in rent-stabilized buildings with the goal of increasing the rents.
“Vacancy decontrol is purely a tool for harassment and getting tenants out,” she said, “so it’s actually good to hear that some units with lots of tenants are not speculative markets for developers and landlords.”
Several bills Albany is considering will be discussed during May 2 and May 9 hearings, so New Yorkers and the real estate industry should get at least slightly more clarity on them then.
Peter Von Der Ahe, a broker at Marcus & Millichap, said the more information people have about what the new laws are, the more stable the multifamily market will be—even if that new information is not what the real estate industry wants to hear.
“People will know what the rules are. Now, the rules could be worse. We know they’re going to be worse,” he said. “The question is, how much worse?”