14 unions back good cause eviction. Will it matter?

Health care workers plan to make bill a priority

(L-R) 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East president George Gresham, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Gov. Kathy Hochul, and REBNY president James Whelan (1199SEIU, NY State Senate, Heastie for NY, Getty, Wikipedia)
(L-R) 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East president George Gresham, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Gov. Kathy Hochul, and REBNY president James Whelan (1199SEIU, NY State Senate, Heastie for NY, Getty, Wikipedia)

Last week, 14 labor unions sent a letter to Albany calling on lawmakers to support good cause eviction. The legislation, they wrote, would protect their members from “price-gouging, speculative displacement, and discriminatory evictions.”

The good cause bill would give tenants a defense against eviction in housing court if their rent is raised by more than 3 percent or 1.5 times the regional inflation rate, whichever is higher.

The letter went to Gov. Kathy Hochul, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who have not taken stances on the bill. Stewart-Cousins told Brian Lehrer last month that the legislation wouldn’t pass in its current form, Gothamist reported.

Neither Heastie nor Stewart-Cousins returned a request for comment. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Hochul’s focus is on “continuing to work with the legislature to finalize a budget that serves all New Yorkers.”

The budget is due by April 1; if good cause does not pass before the legislature adjourns in late June, it would likely be dead for the year.

Good cause hasn’t cropped up in the budgets separately proposed by the governor, Senate and Assembly.

But experts say the unions’ push could draw lawmakers’ attention to the good cause campaign, which has been largely driven by tenant rallies on the Capitol steps. Two of the letter’s signatories, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and District Council 37, are prominent unions with track records of political influence, meaningful lobbying budgets, and in 1199’s case, an agenda that lists good cause as a priority.

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State records show that in 2020 the 14 unions combined paid lobbyists over $700,000. The health care workers spent $126,400 on lobbyist salaries, DC 37 spent over $200,000 and the New York State Nurses Association more than $280,000. Other groups that signed, including the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, spent nothing, according to state records.

By comparison, the Real Estate Board of New York, Rent Stabilization Association and Community Housing Improvement Program, three landlord groups that oppose the bill, spent over $1 million on lobbying in the same year.

The industry also topped the labor groups in campaign contributions, giving $4.6 million to Hochul’s election campaign in her first six months as governor. Douglas Durst, who chairs REBNY, gave $55,000.

Among the letter writers, only the state Nurses Association shelled out for Hochul, giving just $5,000.

However, what organized labor lacks in lobbying and campaign finance budgets, it can make up with boots on the ground.

REBNY, CHIP and RSA serve about 46,000 real estate professionals. The member count for 1199SEIU alone is about 10 times that, although that includes five states besides New York.

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“If you’re trying to get a handle on who is powerful in a state, the number of members an organization has is a pretty good indication,” said Heath Brown, a professor of public policy at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But the influence a lobby wields on lawmakers is harder to discern. One clue, Brown said, is how much work the union is doing to draw public support and appeal to lawmakers. Letter writing is part of that.

“To the question of whether or not a letter with a bunch of unions on it matters, the short answer is yes,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group Fund, a nonpartisan nonprofit.

But letter writing alone likely won’t turn lawmakers’ heads. Groups typically have to do public outreach, such as door-knocking or phone banking, as well.

The real estate industry is not known for grassroots campaigns, although it launched one against good cause last month. A group called Homeowners for Affordable New York, backed by RSA and REBNY, unleashed a phone-call crusade supported by a $1.4 million budget, The City reported.

The group has spent the past few weeks ringing city households to warn of the consequences of passing good cause, then offering to transfer the call to a state lawmaker.

But the health care workers union is poised to start its own outreach. Unions with a large number of members will typically encourage them to contact legislators or to vote for its endorsed candidates, rather than try to get the general public to do so.

Helen Schaub, the union’s legislative director, said rising rents have become a sticking point for members, who fear their wages won’t keep up.

“When we talk to our members about the issues most important to them outside of the workplace, the cost of housing is always number one,” Schaub said. “That’s true for our members in New York City and throughout the state.”

Schaub said the organization has been heads down in budget talks, but expects to make good cause “a top priority” afterward.

“We’ll do all the things we normally do to help members contact their legislative representatives and talk about why it’s really important to them,” she said.

That outreach could, in theory, move the needle on good cause. This is an election year for all state lawmakers.

Horner said 1199 has a history of helping push through policy changes that matter to its members. For example, it worked closely on the Fight for $15 campaign, which raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour in New York City in 2018 — an idea that was initially ridiculed by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“If these unions put significant resources into the issue, elected officials will take notice,” Horner said.

As Brown noted: “It gets your phone calls returned, it gets a meeting, it gets the attention of some portion of elected officials.”

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