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What NYC renters need to know during the coronavirus pandemic

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Should I move? What if I’m diagnosed with COVID-19? And more questions about renting right now, answered.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend life in New York City, there’s still a looming worry among renters throughout the five boroughs: What happens on the first of the month?

That’s the next date that rent is due, but if people are out of work or have lost other sources of income as a result of the outbreak, they may not be able to pay their rent. Other New Yorkers who were planning on moving at the beginning of the month are now facing uncertainty over whether it’s safe or feasible to move to a new apartment at all.

There have been some silver linings: Following a push from housing advocates, the state implemented a 90-day moratorium on evictions due to the pandemic, which has been extended until August 20. But, that extension comes with significant caveats that will likely still put some renters at risk, according to advocates. And on June 30, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the state’s Tenant Safe Harbor Act into law, which offers additional protections to renters who might have been at risk of being evicted through nonpayment of accumulated rent.

Lawmakers, tenants’ advocates, and even groups that represent landlords have pushed for policies, including a rent freeze or suspension, that would give renters much-needed relief for the duration of the pandemic, which has ravaged New York’s economy. Cuomo, who announced relief for mortgage payments back in March, hasn’t provided similar relief for renters (and believes the state’s eviction moratorium is enough to provide relief for tenants).

Still, there are many uncertainties for renters during this time—below, find answers to some of the most pressing questions tenants have right now, from whether you should move to your rights if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19.

Do you have more questions about renting, or an experience you want to share? Email us at tips@curbed.com.

What if I can’t pay my rent this month?

The good news is that, under the eviction moratorium that’s currently in place, you cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent—at least not until August 20. The bad news is that the moratorium does not wipe the slate clean, so you will still owe your landlord rent, even if you cannot pay right now. And after June 20, the measure will only apply to tenants unable to pay rent due to the pandemic or those who qualify for unemployment benefits. Though, keep in mind, your landlord can’t evict you right now for not having paid rent over the last few months and for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, per the Tenant Safe Harbor Act.

For those struggling to make ends meet, the city’s Human Resources Administration can offer some help through the “One Shot Deal.” This emergency assistance program can provide qualifying New Yorkers with a one-time payment they can put toward rent.

Jason Wu, a housing attorney and a trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, says communication can also be key here. If you can’t make rent, you might want to let your landlord know that you recently suffered a loss of income and see if an arrangement can be reached; when you find a new source of income, you may be able to negotiate a repayment plan with your landlord for missed payments, says Wu.

What about a rent strike if I can’t pay?

Some tenants and advocates have called for rent strikes, in which residents of a building withhold rent from their landlord en masse. On April 1, Housing Justice for All—a coalition of tenants’ rights groups including the Met Council on Housing, New York Communities for Change, and Make the Road—hosted a virtual training for those interested in launching rent strikes. That culminated with the group releasing a “toolkit” with tips on how to safely connect with neighbors during this time, as well as guidance on how to approach landlords. The toolkit urges those looking to take collective action to aim for May 1, “to align with buildings across the state.”

However, a rent strike should not be undertaken without serious consideration of its effects, and without consulting legal experts first.

Am I still allowed to move while all of this is going on?

According to a spokesperson in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, moving companies are deemed essential under the PAUSE executive order—so you can, under the current guidance, hire a mover if you need one.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s prudent. “It is clear that the governor’s executive order requires people to stay at home,” says Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “To the extent people can stay where they are, that they are safe where they are, everyone should stay put.”

You would also need to coordinate with the landlord or manager of both the building you’re leaving and the one you’re moving into—and they may not be amenable to facilitating a move right now.

Still, some movers are still providing services. Seka Moving, which has offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, requested and received an individual authorization from the state to keep operating. Serik Baim, the company’s CEO, told Curbed that its office staff is working from home and only crew members, truck drivers, and foremen are working at its main location with gloves and masks.

What if my lease is expiring at the end of the month?

“It would seem rational for landlords to work with their tenants to keep things as normal as possible, and to keep things in place as much as possible, so that no one needs to leave their apartments in the middle of a health crisis,” says Davidson. “Landlords and tenants should work together to figure out how people can remain in their apartments while this crisis is going on.”

Month-to-month leases could be one solution, if a tenant and a landlord can come to an agreement for the duration of the pandemic and then decide what happens once the crisis comes to an end. Such an agreement should ideally be made over email, Davidson says.

Some property owners have reached similar agreements with their tenants: Brokerage MNS has worked with developers like Slate Property Group to allow tenants of certain buildings to continue on month-to-month leases until the crisis is over, according to Andrew Barrocas, the CEO of the brokerage. “The goal is to assure that residents have a place to stay and minimize the need to go outside to search for apartments,” says Barrocas.

Jessica Swersey, an agent with Warburg Realty, has had similar experiences with her clients. “If the landlord has not re-rented the unit, they are being very flexible in allowing a month-to-month extension,” she says. “I also have renters that need to move April 1, and are hitting roadblocks of inability to access apartments or current tenants extending, or buildings that are not allowing any move-ins and move-outs.”

What if I live in a rent-stabilized apartment?

Those living in rent-regulated apartments can renew their leases for a one- or two-year term, with a few exceptions. But for rent-stabilized tenants who had plans to break a lease, “landlords can provide early termination agreements to allow for a lease break later in the summer,” says Iliana Acevedo, a new development manager at MNS.

Keep in mind that on June 17, the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) voted to approve a rent freeze on one-year leases — and for two-year leases, a freeze on the first year and a one percent increase on the second year. So if your rent-stabilized lease starts on or after October 1, your rent shouldn’t increase at all this year (on one-year leases and the first year of two-year leases).

What if I have an issue with my apartment—something breaks, or I need an urgent repair?

Under the state’s PAUSE order, workers like electricians or plumbers are listed as essential, along with “other related construction firms and professionals for essential infrastructure or for emergency repair and safety purposes.” So if you have a serious, emergency issue with your apartment, contact your landlord for help.

But if your landlord is not responding to an urgent request for repairs, you do have recourse: Housing courts are still handling emergency situations, according to Davidson, including a tenant being illegally locked out or a landlord ignoring an urgent repair order. You can also call a hotline run by Housing Court Answers, which offers advice and resources for those without attorneys.

What should I do if my landlord serves me with an eviction notice?

Tenants should not be getting eviction notices at the moment—though, through a sort of loophole, landlords were briefly able to file new eviction cases against tenants. But under Cuomo’s recent executive order, “courts are not allowing landlords to start cases which would end up with tenants being served with notices of petition, the court papers which start the case.”

Tenants may still be issued with a rent demand, but not a notice of petition or actual court papers. “These proceedings are not considered emergency or essential, and so neither the landlords nor their processors are allowed to be out and serving these notices so it ought not happen, because it’s actually against the governor’s executive order,” says Davidson.

If you do get served an eviction notice, contact the Department of Investigation’s Bureau of City Marshals. And keep in mind that even if the notice asks you to show up in person, you do not have to show up to housing court.

“If they don’t answer in person no harm will come to them, it will not impact the case that will eventually be brought against them, because no cases—unless they’re very specific emergencies—are being allowed to move forward in housing court,” says Davidson.

Can my landlord raise my rent right now?

If you currently have a lease in effect, “that lease governs,” Davidson says. But if you’re at the end of the lease or a month-to-month tenant, a rent increase is still possible (which is one reason why advocates are pushing for a rent freeze or suspension).

Under the new rent laws, renters should get notice if landlords intend to raise their rent by more than 5 percent. If the tenant has lived in the apartment for up to one year, they should get 30 days notice; if they’ve lived there for up to two years, they should get 60 days notice; and if it’s been more than two years, they should get 90 days notice.

What if I’m diagnosed with COVID-19? What are my rights as a tenant?

The Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants created a guide that addresses some critical issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, including what tenants should know if they’re diagnosed with the disease. “Your landlord cannot evict you, kick you out, or ask you to leave your apartment for having COVID-19,” according to the guidelines—and the same goes if you’re under quarantine at home, or if you’re experiencing harassment or discrimination for other reasons. If any of those things are happening, the office suggests contacting the NYC Commission on Human Rights to file a report.