Few groups garner less sympathy from our public officials than landlords. The political system burdens them with ever-more mandates and limits on the income they can earn. The most recent attempt to hamstring the landlord class is the “Good Cause Eviction” law that Democrats in the New York State legislature have proposed, which would limit landlords’ ability to evict tenants and cap the amount of rent that they can charge.
Politicians should rethink their abuse of landlords, both because they are essential to a functioning rental market and because they are a growing political constituency, especially among Asian Americans. Recent protests by Asian landlords in New York City show that the Democratic Party does not understand how it is driving away what was once a core voting bloc. In fact, one unappreciated reason for New York Asians’ shift to the right in recent years is the state’s growing efforts to expropriate small landlords and extinguish their entrepreneurial spirit.
Politicians who see landlords as a convenient political target ignore their strength. About 7 percent of all households nationally report some income from rent. They are not plutocrats swimming in unearned gains. The majority own between one and two units, and half of landlords reported negative income on their property in 2018 after accounting for taxes, repairs, and other expenses.
Asian Americans in New York City are more likely to hold property and less likely to be renters than other races, so they often suffer from the government’s pro-tenant policies. According to New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in 2019, Asian households had the highest homeownership rate in the city, at 42.2 percent. (White households were a percentage point lower.) That rate is even higher for Chinese Americans—51 percent in 2021.
Because of New York City’s tight housing market, many of these homeowners rent out part of their homes and thus personally suffer from policies directed against landlords. A physician assistant of Indian background, Vanie Mangel, who rented out her basement and first-floor apartments, was barred by federal and state laws from evicting her tenants during the pandemic, even after they cursed at her, spit at her, banged on her floor, and refused to pay rent.
Since the pandemic, small landlords in the city’s Chinese American community have organized against many of New York’s tenant-protection policies. They were part of the constituency that led protests at Governor Kathy Hochul’s Manhattan office last year, chanting “Give back my property!” They’ve formed more than half a dozen groups on WeChat with names like “landlord protesters.” In Queens, Chinese landlords have held a weekly protest in front of the civil court (where housing cases are heard) for the past six months.
These small landlords have also expressed their frustration by backing New York Republicans who sympathize with them. A recent New York Times analysis found that Chinese enclaves in Sunset Park and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, flipped from Democratic to Republican last year for the first time in over a decade. From 2018 to 2022, the Republican share of the vote, the Times noted, increased by 27 percentage points in these areas, while precincts in Flushing and Bayside, Queens—predominantly Chinese and Korean—increased support for Republicans by 22 percentage points.
Though many argue that the rightward shift of New York’s Asian American neighborhoods was due to concerns over Democratic positions on education and public safety, the change also has to do with state Democrats’ anti-landlord policies. In last year’s gubernatorial election, voters in Asian neighborhoods across New York City voted for the Republican candidate, Lee Zeldin, over the Democratic incumbent Hochul. One reason was that Zeldin made clear his opinion on state tenant laws. Zeldin said of Good Cause Eviction in November 2021: “This proposal must be stopped. As governor, I would never sign off on this bill making its way through the New York State legislature. ‘Good Cause Eviction,’ just another name for universal rent control, disincentivizes investment in housing and hurts businesses, communities, and the very renters that need help.”
Asian landlords have also made their voices heard in the state legislature. In 2022, Assemblymember Lester Chang, an advocate for small landlords, became the first Asian Republican legislator in Albany, representing a district that includes parts of both Bensonhurst and Sunset Park. He told The City in an interview that he had run for office twice before in Manhattan’s Chinatown and lost. “In Manhattan, most people rent apartments. In Brooklyn, people own houses. That’s a huge difference,” Chang explained.
Yet Democrats and moderates who opposed Good Cause Eviction also fared well in last year’s election, proving that, for those interested in courting New York’s Asian American vote, this issue is a winning one. Iwen Chu, a Democratic state senator from Brooklyn, won in many of the precincts where Hochul lost. Chu isn’t a co-sponsor of the Good Cause Eviction bill and has said that, while “she is all for tenant protections,” she “also worries that a bad experience with a tenant will lead to small landlords pulling their properties out of the rental market.”
Yiatin Chu, president of a nonpartisan political club in New York called Asian Wave Alliance (AWA), suggested in a tweet earlier this month that the Democratic state senator’s worries about Good Cause Eviction are well-founded: “I urge you to pull this awful bill that hurts New Yorkers like me. We are earnest small landlords who take care of our tenants, have expenses and mortgages to pay, and contribute to housing people fairly. If this gets passed, I will pull out of NYC.” AWA endorsed both Zeldin and Chang in the last election.
Today, Asian Americans make up 14 percent of Gotham’s population, making them the city’s fastest-growing group of eligible voters. “Asian votes, especially in competitive districts,” AWA notes on its website, “can impact the outcomes of elections and send the message to [elected officials] that our community matters.” Democratic policy aimed at punishing property-holders and landlords will drive this vote away.
Many Asians came from countries, such as China, Vietnam, or North Korea, where private property was forbidden, or from nations, such as India, where rent control and decrepit rental properties are common. They understand how the ownership of property can lead to upward mobility and how state control of property can cause decay. As the left-leaning economist Assar Lindbeck noted years ago, “rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.” Rent control and state expropriation of landlords may also be the most efficient technique to drive entrepreneurial immigrants away from the Democratic Party.