The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA (S3157), is a bill currently in committee in the New York State Legislature. Introduced on Jan. 27 by lead sponsor, NYS Senator Zellnor Myrie (D) of New York’s 20th senate district, TOPA aims to prevent displacement of tenants in the state and allows them the chance to purchase the property which they currently live in, should the property be listed for sale.
Tenants not only have an opportunity to purchase the property, but they have the first chance to do so before the opportunity is granted to third party buyers. In the legislative findings section of the bill, it was found that TOPA was needed to address and hopefully resolve the financial burden that comes with renting a home.
Also discussed in the legislative findings was the fact that over 60 percent of tenants in counties like Suffolk and Hudson Valley are paying over 30 percent of their income in rent. Combined with the financial obstacles posed by COVID-19, and even bigger disparities amongst low income and people of color not being sure that they can pay a month’s rent, Senator Myrie along with his co-sponsors are hopeful that TOPA solves this issue.
First, section 799-D of TOPA clearly describes the intention that tenants will be given the first opportunity to purchase the property which they currently reside in should it be listed. While the intent is already assumed in the title of the bill itself, for legislation and policy it is crucial that the actual language of the policy states the intention as well. Later in the bill, tenants are also given the first chance of refusal should they not choose to purchase.
Section 799-C deals more with the property exemptions that TOPA does not apply to. Buildings like licensed hotels or motels, multiple dwelling units, and buildings owned by government entities do not apply to the bill and therefore cannot be purchased by tenants. This ensures that only the appropriate structures are available for sale, to ensure the economic safety and viability of the parties involved.
Section 799-K places responsibility on the seller’s hands, mandating that the seller fully disclose all information about the property to the purchasing tenant. Details like the monthly utility costs, the floor plan, mortgages or other financial notes, any hazards, or dangers the property may have, and a full list of occupied units (if any) throughout the property. In a city like Ithaca where there have been many instances of a lack of accountability on part of landlords, this bill forces them to efficiently communicate with tenants about crucial information.
Section 799-K also mandates that the notice to sell the property be posted around the building in the three most spoken languages in the building. What this allows for is an equal opportunity amongst tenants, where now, for example, a Spanish speaking individual will be as knowledgeable as that of an individual who speaks English.
The last section of interest is section 799-E, where the bill discusses the role of tenant organizations and tenant decision making. Some confusion and perhaps even conflict may arise from several subsections, such as subsection A, where the bill states that a majority rule will take precedent in situations like a multiple tenant occupied unit, or for multiple tenant households. Should one tenant not decide to purchase, this will lead to difficult challenges such as finding a new home should the tenant not want to stay, or even more financial burden, if the tenant is not able to purchase a property.
Regarding the impact of tenant organizations, local Ithaca groups like the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) and the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU) will be greatly affected in how they manage property and policy. INHS owns multiple properties across Ithaca that are aimed in helping individuals who earn a low to middle income. INHS may make the argument that they are a program that aims to help financially burdened people which will exempt them from TOPA. Should this happen, many residents in Ithaca will not have the chance to purchase an INHS property.
Given the housing crisis in Ithaca, TOPA is a new and different approach to housing security. By allowing residents in Ithaca, where most residents rent, to purchase property, will allow the local economy to grow and more people can start to realize that a chance to purchase property despite a financial hardship is possible.