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New York lawmakers seek to prevent ‘tidal wave’ of evictions

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New legislation would essentially extend a statewide moratorium on evictions

Max Touhey

There may be relief in store for renters who are worried about making ends meet during, and after, the COVID-19 pandemic: New state legislation seeks to soften the economic landing for tenants struggling because of the coronavirus outbreak, offering a greater safety net for evictions and more time to make up missed rent payments.

The “Tenant Safe Harbor Act,” which was introduced Tuesday by State Sens. Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger along with Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz, would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent during New York’s current state of emergency and for six months after its eventual end. The bill seeks to stem the swell of eviction cases lawmakers and housing attorneys say will flood the courts once a statewide moratorium on evictions is lifted in mid-June.

“Unless we act, we’ll see a tidal wave of evictions immediately after the moratorium ends when tenants who’ve lost income are suddenly forced to pay several months’ worth of rent,” Hoylman said in a statement. “Our legislation prevents an impending eviction disaster by providing tenants who’ve lost their jobs a safe harbor to get healthy and back on their feet while our country recovers from this economic disaster.”

In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended evictions for 90 days. The policy temporarily protects tenants from losing their homes, but those who miss rent during the moratorium are still on the hook for paying back their landlords. Without additional relief, it’s likely thousands of New Yorkers will face eviction proceedings once the pause is lifted, triggering mass displacement and fueling New York City’s homelessness crisis.

The legislation seeks to mitigate that by building off of Cuomo’s eviction moratorium to extend protections for tenants who couldn’t make rent during New York’s state of emergency, which began on March 7, through six months after that emergency status eventually ends. The idea is to give tenants who have suffered financial hardship due to the pandemic more time to recover and pay back rent.

Landlords would still be able to initiate claims for unpaid rent and seek a money judgment (usually the amount of back rent owed), but evictions for those unable to pay that amount would effectively be halted for the period. The Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.

The proposal wouldn’t suspend or cancel rent, like a bill proposed by State Sen. Michael Gianaris that seeks to forgive rent and mortgage payments for a 90-day period. Instead, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act is intended to complement proposals to cancel rent by taking effect before any such legislation is passed, according to Hoylman’s office.

It’s a stopgap solution to a problem that requires state and federal action, but with both Cuomo and the Trump administration making limited moves to offer renters relief amid the state’s health crisis, the legislation is a work-around that offers temporary aid, says one housing attorney.

“If this bill passes, it means that we will not be seeing the tsunami of evictions that we are all terrified about,” says Ellen Davidson with the Legal Aid Society. “We hope that a bill like this will encourage landlords to work out deals with their tenants to avoid people losing their homes at a time when coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the homeless population.”

Thousands of renters are grappling with the harsh economic reality of the COVID-19 pandemic as they dig into their savings, borrow money from friends, or attempt to negotiate payment plans with their landlords. Others simply cannot afford to pay rent and have chosen to take advantage of the current eviction moratorium by missing payments, likely setting the stage for months-long court battles once eviction proceedings resume.

The bill’s backers argue that the Tenant Safe Harbor Act could partially relieve that pain, but some tenant advocates say that by allowing money judgments the bill is deeply flawed.

“The eviction moratorium we have now is stronger than what’s in this bill. To me, it’s another Band-Aid,” says Cea Weaver, an organizer with Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition that has spearheaded the push to cancel rent during the pandemic. “The idea of landlords being able to garnish your wages and go after your assets, it’s just another way of punishing people who have lost their income and can’t pay rent.”