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New York extends halt on evictions, but tenants still ‘at great risk’

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Tenants cannot be legally evicted in New York until August 20

An aerial view of trees and buildings in New York City for an article discussing the eviction moratorium. Max Touhey

Faced with mounting pressure from tenant advocates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has extended New York’s eviction moratorium another two months until August.

The measure builds on a March 20 order that prohibits residential and commercial evictions statewide through June. Now, that moratorium is in place through August 20 along with a ban on fees for late or missed rent payments during that same period.

“I hope it gives families a deep breath,” Cuomo said at a press conference announcing the extension. “Nothing can happen until August 20 and then we’ll figure out between now and August 20 what the situation is.”

Under the initial executive order, a landlord cannot legally evict a tenant until the measure expires, preventing renters who are suffering a sudden financial hardship from being forced into the streets during a pandemic. The moratorium does not cancel rent payments, and tenants are still on the hook to pay back their landlords for any missed payments.

But according to the new executive order, the two month extension of the moratorium, beginning June 20, only applies to renters unable to pay rent due to COVID-19 or who qualify for unemployment benefits. Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, fears that the caveat puts the burden on tenants of proving they’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19, and could leave undocumented immigrants, and others who don’t qualify for unemployment, vulnerable.

“Are [tenants] supposed to out themselves as undocumented to their landlords?” Davidson questioned, who has dealt with instances of landlords calling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on undocumented tenants. “It would seem this is putting undocumented New Yorkers in danger. It’s not clear to me how I would advise a client about what to do about this provision.”

Meanwhile, renters who are struggling to make ends meet as a result of the pandemic also now have the option to put their security deposit toward paying rent—a measure New Jersey and Connecticut already allow and one that Mayor Bill de Blasio and other New York elected officials have advocated for since early April.

But there’s a catch: Those deposits must be repaid within 90 days of their usage. And if the amount of the deposit is less than a full month of rent, tenants still owe the remaining rent due that month, according to the executive order.

Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator with Housing Justice For All, which is spearheading the push to cancel rent statewide, called the governor’s eviction moratorium extension and security deposit payments “half measures” that fail to truly protect tenants.

“It’s continuing to not face the problem,” says Weaver. “He’s ignoring the real issue—that tenants can’t pay—and just postponing the date of when there will be mass evictions.”

When asked about relief for landlords who may have difficulty making mortgage payments without rent revenue, Cuomo noted that the state is working on “relief from the banks for landlords also.”

James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, acknowledged that tenants and small retailers impacted by the pandemic “will need more time to pay their bills and more help from the federal government to do so” but those who have the ability to pay “should not get away with not paying rent.”

But paying—or not paying—rent may not be much of a choice for the thousands who aren’t earning an income. The eviction moratorium keeps New Yorkers in their homes during a public health crisis, but crucially, it does not address the months of back rent tenants must eventually repay. (Lawmakers have drafted a handful of bills to try and solve that issue.)

Advocates and housing attorneys argue that there will be a “tidal wave” of eviction cases filed in the courts—potentially leading to mass homelessness—once that moratorium is lifted. And with COVID-19 hobbling New York’s economy, renters have few options to make up what’s owed.

Many in the state are still struggling to access unemployment benefits. And while federal stimulus checks of $1,200 have offered some relief, the one-time payment is woefully inadequate for the long-term financial burdens New York renters, homeowners, and small property owners face. Others still, such as undocumented immigrants, don’t qualify for that aid.

Cuomo has maintained that the eviction moratorium “solves” New York renters’ woes, and this week he doubled down on that assessment, saying that the extension and new security deposit mechanism “takes this issue off the table until August 20.” While the moratorium is a piece of the rent relief jigsaw puzzle, Davidson stresses that it is not a full solution.

“The governor must go farther,” says Davidson. “We welcome the extension of the eviction moratorium, but make no mistake, it doesn’t stop tenants from being at risk.”

In March, New York Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks announced a suspension on eviction proceedings in the courts, but a loophole of sorts briefly allowed landlords to file new eviction cases. Cuomo ultimately blocked those new cases by pausing the statute of limitations until May 7. That block has now been extended to June 6, according to Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.

In his latest executive order, Cuomo banned the “initiation of a proceeding or enforcement” of evictions or a foreclosure from June 20 to August 20. But, again, that language only applies to those who are eligible for unemployment benefits under state or federal law or for those “otherwise facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“As long as the courts create a path forward for [eviction cases], tenants are at great risk,” says Davidson. The governor’s office did not immediately clarify how the state defines “financial hardship” and how this provision impacts New York’s undocumented immigrants.

In the meantime, Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), says greater federal support, such as additional stimulus aid and emergency housing vouchers, are sorely needed to help renters and landlords alike.

“New York State leaders are doing what they can and must to avoid a housing crisis in New York,” said Martin. “But it is past time for the federal government to step up and provide renters and building owners with the relief they need ... if they do not millions of New Yorkers will suffer.”