Fighting Evictions From the COVID-19 Shutdown

The economic shutdown ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to hinder the spread of COVID-19 in New York has disproportionately impacted low-wage workers, as the bars, restaurants, movie theaters, venues, retail stores, salons, casinos and big box stores  employing them shut their doors or ended most services.

Then, on April 1, rent came due.

Nearly a third of all tenants in the country hadn’t paid by April 5, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, a 63 percent increase from this time last year.

But the situation could have been worse. Since paychecks are generally distributed one or two weeks after the hours have been completed, many of these workers were able to pay with income they received the last week of March.

However, next month’s rent is due in less than three weeks, and elected officials and housing rights advocates are scrambling to come up with some kind of solution for tenants before May 1 rolls around.

Attempts By New York

None of the economically distressed workers will be evicted. For now.

As part of his March 20 New York State on PAUSE executive order, Gov. Cuomo banned all evictions and foreclosures on residential and commercial properties. He said March 30 this was the “fundamental answer” to questions about rent payment.

“That solves all of the above,” the governor added. “No evictions for non-payment of rent and then we’ll see where we are.”

However, Cuomo has not addressed the issue in the two weeks since. Renters and their political advocates predict that, without some sort of intervention, the eviction moratorium will just back-load the misery. Economically distressed tenants will be unable to pay during the moratorium, leading to mass evictions when it expires. The renters will lose their homes – and their ability to isolate themselves from the coronavirus – while the pandemic is still taking lives outside.

Rebecca Garrard, the housing justice campaign manager at Citizen Action of New York, a government watchdog group, acridly assessed Cuomo’s “complete inaction” on the issue so far.

“In an ideal situation, the Governor would have issued an executive order using the extraordinary power he has during this moment of crisis, and utilize some of the extra power that he has afforded himself throughout this [budgetary] process to have already eased the stress and the financial burden that tenants are facing,” she said.

The executive order is needed because of the wide-ranging economic relief required by tenants, and it should cancel rent for “at least” the three months covered by the eviction moratorium, Garrard said.

“So, while [Cuomo] has not indicated that he seems to be recognizing, in any way, shape or form, the crisis that tenants are in, we certainly look forward to the day he does,” she added.

With no indication of executive branch intervention, state legislators have introduced three bills attempting to address the problem.

The first bill, introduced March 26 by state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Queens), would cancel 90 days of rent for small businesses and residential tenants who have lost income or been forced to close due to the mandated shutdown. Landlords who lose money from the rent cancellation would have an equal amount of money forgiven on their mortgage.

The second bill, introduced three days later by Gianaris, appears to pull back from the original bill’s ambitions. Residential and commercial tenants impacted by the shutdown would be required to pay 30 percent of their income towards rent; the rest would be cancelled. Landlords losing income from the partial cancellation could apply to be reimbursed through an emergency state rental assistance fund.

The third bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Pete Harckham (D-Westchester County), would distribute emergency housing vouchers to residential and commercial tenants impacted by the economic shutdown. Like the second bill, the program would only kick in after the tenant paid 30 percent of their income towards rent and would be funded by future federal aid.

State Sen. Jen Metzger (D-Sullivan County), who co-sponsored the first bill and now supports the second, said the federal CARES Act, passed after the first bill was written, changed the equation.

The $2 trillion economic stimulus package – more than two-and-a-half times the price of the Great Recession’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act –  broadens who can receive unemployment insurance and substantially boosts its payouts.

“When the first bill was introduced, there was a lot of uncertainty about unemployment insurance and how much people would be getting and whether they would be able to make rent,” Metzger said.

“Unemployment doesn’t typically cover rent – but now the situation is obviously different,” she added.

While the first bill took the financial burden off renters and landlords and hoisted it up the economic totem pole to mortgage-backing banks, the second bill hoists the burden up to the government. Tenants would pay less rent, and landlords would apply for reimbursement from a state rental assistance fund.

However, this fund has no money in it, and is relying on a future federal stimulus package to bankroll it.

The state Senate is seeking the funding in the next federal stimulus, Metzger said, with members advocating the inclusion of unrestricted emergency assistance to state and local governments.

The View From Kingston

The fear of mass displacement after the eviction moratorium is felt keenly in Kingston. Rents have risen with the city’s downstate profile as the now-chic locale attracts renters, home buyers and speculators from New York City and elsewhere.

Kingston was the first upstate community to pursue rent stabilization last year after a new state law allowed municipalities outside the greater NYC area to apply. However, the municipality did not meet the law’s requirements and rent stabilization never became a reality.

Gentrification has split the city in two, Kingston Ninth Ward Alderwoman Michele Hirsch said.

“There’s this playground for the rich, and then we’re also this very poor community, and the divide is growing wider and wider every day and people are getting pushed out and can’t afford to live here, can’t afford to eat in the restaurants anymore, because it’s all geared to people that are moving here,” she said.

If no protections are in place when the eviction moratorium ends, more and more original residents will be pushed out, Hirsch said.

Hirsch authored a city resolution affording additional protections for renters in the age of COVID-19. The resolution, which will be discussed in committee April 15 for a potential vote in May, extends the state’s eviction moratorium for an additional month in the city, and disallows evictions resulting from non-payment during the four-month period for 180 days.

Though local courts tend not to evict if tenants are making a good-faith effort to pay, Hirsch wanted this codified to alleviate the fear of displacement in a time when fears were copious.

Hirsch also authored a non-binding resolution supporting the state bill creating emergency housing vouchers.

Kingston Tenants Union organizer Alex Panagiotopoulos said he was most copasetic with Gianaris’ rent cancellation bill.

“That’s the only one I would fight for, because that’s the one that doesn’t put anybody above anyone else, and there’s just no questions asked,” he said.

The other bills also required tenants to prove income, which was harder for gig workers and the self-employed to do, Panagiotopoulos said.

Total rent cancellation was needed because it would keep people safe, Panagiotopoulos said. With the specter of eviction – whether in three months or six – hanging above their heads, tenants didn’t have the free agency to choose whether to work in potentially deadly conditions.

“There are going to be a lot of people…that have to decide how much they want to risk their own death, or their loved ones’ death, to make enough money,” he said.

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