Rent cancellation cries get louder, but low margin for error

4/30/2020, midnight
The COVID-19 crisis has put a lot of New Yorkers out of work and left them without the income needed ...

The COVID-19 crisis has put a lot of New Yorkers out of work and left them without the income needed to make monthly rent. Looking for a way out, tenants are demanding either a rent freeze, rent cancellation or governmental assistance.

Either way, tenants need relief of some kind. The multi-pronged approach to this movement has united tenant groups, activist organizations, legal groups and some elected officials.

This week, New York State Senator Brian Kavanaugh and New York State Assembly Member Hevesi have called on Congress to include $10 billion designated for New York State in their $100 billion additional stimulus funding. Albany would then use that money to provide housing and rental assistance to New Yorkers. They’ve also put the pressure on Albany to help out New Yorkers as well.

“Rental assistance is critical to ensuring that vulnerable New Yorkers are not disproportionately affected by the current lockdown,” stated Social Services Committee Chair Hevesi. “People who are homeless and housing insecure are being exposed to COVID-19 at significantly higher rates, which has serious implications on their ability to weather this crisis and recover both physically and financially.”

Backed by dozens of elected officials (including Congress Members Adriano Espaillat, Greg Meeks, Hakeem Jeffries and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, tenant advocates and landlord organizations) Hevesi and Kavanaugh sent letters to U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and the New York Congressional delegation requesting federal funds for rent subsidies.

“The very real prospect of allowing so many New Yorkers to be displaced from their homes and homelessness to grow runs counter to the difficult measures we have put in place to completely halt the spread––the primary goal in fighting an epidemic or pandemic––and also to our efforts to merely slow or mitigate the outbreak,” read the letter. “If New York State does not implement a robust program of rental assistance in the next few months, we believe the consequences for our constituents and all New Yorkers will be dire.” 

Recently Kavanagh and Assembly Housing Committee Chair Steven Cymbrowitz introduced legislation (S8140A / A10248) that would provide emergency rental assistance vouchers to help keep New Yorkers who have lost jobs and/or income because of COVID-19 from losing their homes. The government would pay for any rent that exceeds 30% of a person or family’s monthly adjusted income and for rent, up to 250% of the fair market value for the neighborhood they reside in.

“Not only has COVID-19 cost New Yorkers their lives and their livelihoods,” added Senate Housing Committee Chair Kavanagh, “but hundreds of thousands of residents face the grim prospect of also being severely burdened by rent they cannot pay and losing their homes. As we work to contain the suffering this deadly pandemic is causing, we must devote funds to protecting tenants and stabilizing the housing market.

“The first thing is that if the tenants don’t pay rent, there is a strong likelihood that they would be taken to housing court as part of the eviction process,” said Edward Josephson, the director of housing for Legal Services NYC, to the AmNews. “You have to be able to raise a legal defense. If you have bad conditions in your apartment or building, you have a defense. If your apartment is in good condition, you have no defense.”

“There’s strength in numbers. If one tenant withholds the rent then it’s a relatively small loss for landlords,” continued Josephon. “But if everyone does it, the people will have more bargaining power. They’re in uncharted territory. If there’s a rent issue, it’s usually over repairs and conditions and both sides would eventually compromise. But an outright rent strike without any issue in the building or back rent involved is unprecedented.”

There’s one area that elected officials want New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo to push to the side so tenants can focus on rent issues.

A letter signed by multiple state legislators called for Cuomo to use his executive power to prevent what they deemed “poverty-based police-civilian interactions and incarceration,” which would provide relief for low-income New Yorkers who already have trouble making rent and don’t have the money to pay fines.

“We have a system that penalizes people for being poor. This has always hit people of color and working people the hardest,” said New York State Senator Julia Salazar. At this time when our communities are living in the epicenter of a public health disaster, with unprecedented unemployment, and with our friends and neighbors worried about how they are going to pay their rent, it is imperative that the governor take immediate steps to ensure that New Yorkers do not also have to worry that they will be punished simply for not being able to pay a court fee or fine.”

But even with this relief, there are other issues low-income New Yorkers have to deal with. A rent freeze doesn’t mean the money available won’t get spent. With other expenses to pay for–– bills, medical help, assisting relatives without a job––the freed up cash would let tenants pay for those services, but still leave them broke. One million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment. There are three million dwelling units in the city.

This is why Josephson believes that the government has no choice but to get involved.

“I think it’s government assistance that has to solve the problem,” Josephson said. “Like after [Superstorm] Sandy, they had disaster rent subsidies still available for a couple of years. But the scope of the problem is so large, landlords and tenants who can solve it in housing court.

A rent strike [would] call attention to the need of a sweeping governmental response,” said Josephson.