politics

New York lawmakers approve sweeping eviction moratorium






Demonstrators held up signs at Brooklyn Housing court during a “No Evictions, No Police” national day of action in New York City. | Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

ALBANY, N.Y. — A sweeping eviction ban that advanced in the New York State Legislature on Monday has led to pushback from landlord groups asserting that the measure will hurt struggling property owners, while tenant advocates warned that it’s only a temporary fix.

Details: The bill would halt evictions and foreclosures across the state for 60 days, and allow tenants and mortgagers who have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic to submit financial hardship declarations that would halt those proceedings until May 1. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he would sign the legislation.

The Democratic-run state Senate passed it by a nearly party line vote in the afternoon, and the Assembly, which Democrats also control, was poised to do the same later in the day.

The measure comes as the state grapples with what is likely to be billions of dollars in back rent owed by tenants financially hurt by the pandemic. The National Council of State Housing Agencies commissioned a report earlier this year estimating that New York could face a rent shortfall of as much as $3.4 billion by January.

Tenant advocates have been pushing for a broad moratorium for months, warning of a wave of evictions when existing protections were slated to run out in January. Several housing groups lauded the bill’s passage, while calling for the Legislature to pass substantial rental relief or forgiveness in the coming months. Landlord groups, meanwhile, say their members can’t swallow months of missed rent payments and note that many property owners are struggling to keep up with real estate taxes and utility bills.

The measure contains some benefits for small landlords — those who own 10 or fewer units would be able to access protections against foreclosure and tax lien sales. But landlord groups say the measure covers too broad a swath of tenants and could amount to a rent holiday for tenants who do have the means to pay.

The debate: Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord group, called the measure a “stall tactic.”

“No renter facing financial hardship should be evicted during a pandemic, but the cost of providing free housing cannot be fully borne by property owners,” he said in a statement. “If renters interpret this bill as a justification to not pay rent the damage to our economy and local budgets will be immense.”

Joseph Strasburg, head of the Rent Stabilization Association, another landlord group, argued the measure would benefit many tenants who don’t need assistance, noting the “financial hardship declaration” that tenants could submit does not require proof of economic hardship.

Members of the Republican minorities in both houses raised similar concerns about the breadth of the bill.

“I just have a fear that because [tenants] don’t need a lot of documentation, they don’t need to really prove that they’re unemployed or that they have any of these things or conditions,” said state Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury).

Assemblymember Brian Manktelow (R-Lyons) said the existing rent moratorium has given his constituents opportunities to abuse the system, and that has helped the pandemic spread.

“They’re going places to buy large televisions, new cars, socializing, that’s part of the reason there’s a large spread,” he said. “I’ve seen it [and] I’ve watched it.”

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan), chair of the housing committee, said the bill is “not a rent holiday” and noted it would be against the law for a tenant and others covered under the measure to sign a hardship declaration that contains false information.

“The problem we are facing in New York is that we believe that there are about 1 million tenant households that are behind on their rent,” Kavanagh said at a committee meeting on Monday. “Any process that purported to adjudicate which of those folks have a hardship and which do not, we concluded in the drafting of this bill would be ineffective.”

What’s next: Legislators said the extended ban gives them time to create a more expansive rental assistance program and to distribute relief funds. An existing $100 million rent relief program was approved over the summer, but less than half of that money has been distributed thus far. New York will get additional rental assistance funds under the latest federal stimulus package.

Tenant groups praised the state measure but urged further action.

“This bill is only a temporary solution to the urgent housing crisis we find ourselves in,” the Housing Justice for All coalition said in a statement. “In order to prevent massive economic disaster, our legislature must clear the back rent owed by New Yorkers and create a hardship fund for small landlords struggling to keep their buildings safe and afloat.”

Judith Goldiner, a lead attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said lawmakers must “remain open to enhancing this legislation if we find ourselves still severely mired in the pandemic come May.”



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