When the novel coronavirus hit New York City in early March, things were just starting to look up for Luis Perez. After more than a year of juggling part-time restaurant gigs, the 25-year-old Bushwick resident had landed a full-time job at a Tribeca catering company. But on his one-month anniversary on March 17, he got an early morning call from his boss that he and several other employees were being laid off.
“It was a punch to the gut,” says Perez, whose bartender roommate also had his hours dramatically reduced. “I just sat there for a long time afterword and thought, ‘How the hell are we going to pay our rent?’”
That question is front of mind for many of the nearly 1 million New Yorkers who have filed for unemployment since the state shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19, and the thousands more like Perez who don’t qualify for those benefits. Under a statewide eviction moratorium, tenants are protected from losing their homes until at least mid-June. But the moratorium doesn’t cancel rent payments; it exists solely to prevent those suddenly struggling to make ends meet from being kicked out during a pandemic.
That could soon change. Lawmakers, tenants’ advocates, and even groups that represent landlords are pushing for policies that would give renters much-needed relief for the duration of the pandemic, which has ravaged New York’s economy. But one crucial voice has been noticeably absent from the conversation: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced relief for mortgage payments, but left out renters.
Under a bill introduced by Queens State Sen. Michael Gianaris, residential and commercial tenants suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic would not have to pay rent for 90 days. It would also provide mortgage relief to the landlords of qualifying tenants. How tenants would prove their financial hardship is connected to COVID-19 is unclear; Gianaris said “state experts” would be responsible for that determination.
“These rents are not getting paid and there will be a cascading effect,” says Gianaris. “We can either let that happen, or we can put up some legal structure around it and try to soften the landing.”
The bill currently has 22 co-sponsors in the State Senate, along with the support of other high-profile officials, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Manhattan Assembly member Yuh Line Niou has sponsored the Assembly version of the bill, with several lawmakers rallying behind it.
Cuomo, however, has remained mum on the bill (gubernatorial spokesperson Jason Conwall says it will be reviewed). At a recent press conference, he claimed that the eviction moratorium “solves” renters’ problems, but housing attorneys and tenants’ rights advocates beg to differ.
“There will absolutely be a wave of new cases when the moratorium is lifted,” says Jason Wu, a housing attorney and a trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. “That’s why some sort of cancellation of rent would make a big difference and is needed—otherwise we’re just kicking the can down the road.”
Housing Justice for All—a coalition of tenants’ rights groups that includes Make the Road, New York Communities for Change, and the Met Council on Housing—has called on city and state officials to develop a $10 billion relief package that would include a moratorium on rent, mortgage, and utility payments, as well as funding for public and subsidized housing. They’re also calling for rent strikes across the state to galvanize support for a rent suspension by putting economic pressure on landlords—and thus forcing the state to act.
“Gianaris’ bill is a good step, but we need a universal cancellation of rent,” says Cea Weaver, an organizer with Housing Justice for All. “So many New Yorkers haven’t lost their jobs but have lost income. The way to make this most effective is to make it for all renters.”
The “Tenant Safe Harbor Act,” which was introduced by State Sens. Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger along with Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz, would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for missing rent payments during New York’s current state of emergency, and for six months after its eventual end.
Lawmakers say the measure would ease “a tidal wave” of eviction proceedings in housing court after the current moratorium is lifted. But tenant advocates balk at the idea that landlords would still be able to initiate certain claims for unpaid rent and seek a money judgment (usually the amount of back rent owed) under the legislation.
In a similar vein, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh is pushing a housing voucher program, modeled after the federal Section 8 program, designed to aid those at risk of becoming homeless. Those vouchers would be issued to qualifying households for 90 days, thereby closing the gap between the total rent and 30 percent of the household’s adjusted income.
And yet another proposal calls for landlords to tap into their security deposits to help tenants meet next month’s rent. The Renter’s Relief plan, put forward by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Councilmembers Robert Cornegy and Keith Powers, would give tenants one month to replace their security deposit, or purchase a low-cost insurance policy to protect landlords if a tenant damages their apartment or breaks their lease early. (Mayor Bill de Blasio has since backed the idea.) And while it would only provide a month’s relief, lawmakers argue that it would buy renters more time to get back on their feet.
“What that does is creates our own economic stimulus,” says Adams. “This could really provide an opportunity for those who are rent-burdened.”
Others are hoping to stave off potential rent increases for those living in the city’s one million rent-stabilized apartments. A bill proposed by Manhattan Assembly member Harvey Epstein seeks to cancel this year’s proceedings by the Rent Guidlines Board, effectively freezing rent increases for regulated units. (But that bill seems ill fated now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced the RGB will move forward remotely in the coming weeks.)
The board typically holds a series of raucous public meetings that culminate in a vote to determine increases for rent-regulated tenants. Last year, the board approved a 1.5 percent increase for one-year leases and a 2.5 percent hike for two-year leases. But the COVID-19 outbreak has put the kibosh on large gatherings, and Epstein believes any attempt at moving those proceedings to teleconferences would devolve into chaos.
“I just think we’re in a new world,” says Epstein. “We’re in a crisis that’s only going to get worse. There’s lots of ways to cut this and I think one way is to ensure stability. A moratorium on rent increases will allow people the breather they need.”
De Blasio too has called on the RGB to freeze rents. “I think the facts are clear,” he said while announcing the remote meetings. “We need that rent freeze, and we need it now.”
Surprisingly, both tenant and landlord groups agree with elected officials. The Rent Justice Coalition, a citywide collective of rent-stabilized tenants, is calling for a freeze on rent increases in addition to a suspension of rent payments. Meanwhile, the Real Estate Board of New York, the Community Housing Improvement Program, and the Rent Stabilization Association submitted a letter to Vicki Been, the deputy mayor of housing and economic development, asking the city to postpone or suspend RGB proceedings.
“This request is in the best interest of tenants and property owners alike,” the three organizations, which work with landlords and developers, wrote in their joint letter. “It is impossible to predict what the economics of rent stabilized housing will look like next week, let alone for the rest of the year.”
Initially, New York City put in a request with the state to suspend RGB proceedings, but later decided to move push on with the process remotely. De Blasio expressed interest in the idea of suspending rent across the board but has stopped short of putting his weight behind a statewide rent suspension—as May 1 looms large in the minds of the city’s renters.
“A lot of people cannot and will not be able to pay their rent because so many have lost their jobs,” says Marilyn Mullins, a retired nurse aide and a member of The Rent Justice Coalition who lives in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. “How are people going to handle an increase if they can’t even pay their rent now? That can’t be an option. We need relief.”