Lawmakers and tenants’ rights groups have proposed a rent suspension, a freeze on increases, and other policies to help those struggling amid COVID-19.
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 the more than 80,000 New Yorkers who filed for unemployment last week, and 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 the COVID-19 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 he “took care of the rent issue” with the statewide eviction moratorium, 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.
“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.”
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. 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.
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 says any attempt at moving those proceedings to teleconferences would undoubtably 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.”
Surprisingly, both tenant and landlord groups agree with Epstein. 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 recently 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. “As we all know, public hearings are not possible at this time. Furthermore, 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.”
At a Friday press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a rent freeze on the city’s regulated apartments. The RGB is a mayoral-appointed board but because it oversees increases on state regulated units, state officials would need to be on board with the freeze.
“If ever there was a time there should be a rent freeze, it is now,” de Blasio said. “That’s something I think we have to do given the sheer severity of this crisis.”
New York City will “immediately” request that the RGB process be suspended, according to the mayor. De Blasio expressed interest in the idea of suspending rent payments across the board but has stopped short of endorsing a statewide rent suspension. And April 1 is just a few days away.
“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.”