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New York will offer mortgage relief during coronavirus pandemic. What about rents?

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“People are losing their jobs, closing their businesses—it’s going to be hard to continue to pay our rent”

Two buildings with fire escapes. Oliver Foerstner/Shutterstock.com

New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet during the novel coronavirus pandemic have gotten some respite for their housing concerns: Earlier this week, the state suspended eviction proceedings indefinitely (though there are some aspects of the policy that lack clarity), and today, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a 90-day suspension on mortgage payments (based on financial hardship) and foreclosures.

But tenants’ advocates say there’s something missing from this response: a statewide rent freeze. Housing Justice for All, a coalition of advocacy groups, has launched an online petition asking Cuomo and members of the New York state congressional delegation to freeze rents for the duration of the crisis. It currently has more than 11,000 signatures. (Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.)

“I think it’s pretty unfair for the half of the state that rents that a similar measure hasn’t been put forward,” says Cea Weaver, campaign director for Housing Justice for All. “It’s really important at this moment as New Yorkers lose income that we also don’t lose our homes.”

Several elected officials have also called for a rent freeze while proposing other measures to help New York residents at this time: State Sen. Michael Gianaris called for a 90-day rent suspension, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson proposed a temporary universal income for New York City residents ($550 for each adult and $275 for each child). Other Councilmembers have also expressed support for a rent freeze. Mayor Bill de Blasio said on the Brian Lehrer show that he would pursue a rent moratorium, while State Assemblymember Joseph Lentol announced the introduction of rent forgiveness legislation.

“Tenants are in dire straits right now and they need relief,” Lentol said in a statement. “I believe many property owners will rise to the occasion, but they need assistance as well. This legislation seeks to help both.”

A recent survey by PropertyNest found that 39 percent of New York City residents were living paycheck-to-paycheck and wouldn’t be able to pay rent if they were to stop working or lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. And those layoffs are already happening: The state’s Department of Labor saw a significant increase in unemployment insurance claims over the past few days, as so-called “nonessential” businesses are forced to close their doors.

Bronx resident Ramona Monegro, a member of the nonprofit Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), is worried about her ability to pay her rent and utility bills; she’s on disability, and both her husband and daughter are Uber drivers and losing work.

“People are losing their jobs, closing their businesses—it’s going to be hard to continue to pay our rent, our bills, so we need the support from the governor, the president, and the mayor,” Monegro says.

At the city level, housing advocates are also concerned about this year’s Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) hearings. The RGB decides whether to freeze, increase, or roll back rents for the nearly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in New York City, but the future of its hearings, which typically begin in the spring, is uncertain given the current restrictions of public gatherings. “The meetings should happen at a moment when we can all participate,” says Bienvenida Paez, a member of CASA and a rent-stabilized tenant in the Bronx.

And even though the eviction moratorium is a good move for tenants in the short-term, landlords could demand back payment of rent or simply move to evict tenants once the moratorium is lifted. Forgiving that debt is key, according to advocates.

“People can’t pay their rent, and it’s great that no one’s going to court, but that’s really a public health measure, that’s not a housing affordability measure,” says Weaver. “We need something about making sure that people are not displaced.”

Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, echoes that concern. “There needs to be a federal and state response to deal with this so that we don’t end up at the end of the moratorium with everyone getting evicted,” she says. “If our officials don’t work on this until after the moratorium is lifted, I think we’re gonna end up in a new crisis.”