The COVID-19 crisis is battering the U.S. economy. More than 22 million people have lost their jobs and applied for unemployment insurance. And few have any financial cushion; 41 percent of people who had savings have had to dip into them already, while 38 percent didn’t have savings at all.
This economic hardship has meant that many people do not have money for their landlords: Nearly a third of renters across the country didn’t pay rent on April 1.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo implemented a 90-day eviction moratorium on March 20, meaning landlords are prohibited from enforcing evictions against tenants during that period. But rent will still accrue, and tenants will owe it once the moratorium expires.
“The eviction moratorium gets lifted, but it doesn’t mean that day people get their jobs back and have the ability to pay rent,” Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, noted. “In 10 days, you could lose your home.”
Housing advocates anticipate a flood of eviction cases the moment the moratorium lifts. “If we don’t address this crisis, courts are going to reopen with mass evictions that we’ve never before seen,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a coalition of affordable-housing advocates.
It’s starkly different than how homeowners, including landlords, are being treated. Cuomo signed a different executive order on March 19 waiving mortgage payments for 90 days for those who experience financial hardship. Anyone with a federally subsidized mortgage, meanwhile, can get forbearance, tacking on what they owe at the end of the mortgage period, which could be years out.
“What’s inadequate about the governor’s [rent] moratorium is that in theory a landlord could draw papers to evict tenants and file for an eviction, forcing them out of their homes on June 19,” state Senator Brad Hoylman told The Appeal.
Many landlords are pushing as far ahead as they can on the process right now, said Goldiner. She is seeing landlords agitate for the court system to reopen and begin holding trials. Even if they can’t enforce an eviction judgment until Cuomo’s moratorium lifts, landlords want to be able to evict the second that it does, she said.
“The moratorium isn’t a real moratorium unless you protect tenants from that kind of on-paper eviction process,” Hoylman said. He, Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz, and Senator Liz Krueger have authored a bill that would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants because they didn’t pay rent during New York’s state of emergency and for another six months after it ends. “This is about giving tenants the peace of mind from physical evictions,” the senator said.
Goldiner hopes that it will bring landlords to the negotiating table to work out payment plans if they can’t move to evict. “It gives a tenant breathing room they wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said of the bill. “It doesn’t forgive the rent. But it certainly does take away a big cudgel that a landlord would have, which is you would [otherwise] lose your home and be out on the street.”
But the bill would still allow landlords to sue for money judgments against their tenants, allowing them to garnish tenant wages, or go after tenants’ assets in lieu of rent, even if landlords can’t kick them out.
Weaver supports a different approach: a bill authored by state Senator Michael Gianaris that would suspend residential and commercial rent payments for 90 days for those who lost their jobs or had to close their businesses because of COVID-19. Renters wouldn’t owe anything after the suspension was over. Landlords would also be able to get mortgage forgiveness if they faced financial hardship. “We don’t think anyone should have to pay rent in this moment given the staggering loss of income and work,” Weaver said.
Hoylman agrees. That’s why “we need to pass both bills,” he said. “They work in tandem.” Together, renters would be freed from scrounging up rent money during the pandemic as well as from the fear of being pushed out once the emergency subsides.
We don’t think anyone should have to pay rent in this moment given the staggering loss of income and work
Cea Weaver campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All
A third bill, authored by Senator Brian Kavanagh, would create an emergency assistance program to help people pay their rent during the coronavirus crisis.
But the legislature must reconvene before any new legislation can pass. It recessed this month after passing this year’s budget, and there are no current plans for lawmakers to return. There are, of course, some technical questions to answer, such as how to debate legislation remotely to maintain social distancing. But “if they don’t come back and do more, they are just completely abdicating their responsibility,” Weaver said.
“There’s enormous appetite among my colleagues in the Senate Democratic Conference,” Hoylman said. “There’s a lot of support for these bills.”
Cuomo could also take executive action to address the rent crisis. The Senate Democratic Conference has “encouraged him to look at the cancel rent option,” Hoylman said. Gianaris has written the governor a letter asking him to suspend rent collection. “I’m hopeful that if we pass these bills he’d sign,” Hoylman said.
But Cuomo has indicated he doesn’t support canceling rent and has stood behind his eviction moratorium. It is “the fundamental answer,” he said at a press conference on March 30. “It’s not that you won’t owe rent at one time, because you signed a contract, and even the people to whom you pay the rent have to pay the rent and they have expenses.”
Goldiner called the governor’s words “tone deaf” and had “no sense of the pain and suffering that people are feeling.”
Cuomo’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would support any of the bills in the legislature or if he will take more action to protect the state’s renters.
“This is a calamity on a scale that we’ve not seen since the Great Depression,” Hoylman said. “Low-income renters are going to be particularly hard hit.” No matter the solution, or where it comes from, the urgency is stark.
Although the state legislature and the governor have important roles to play, they can’t address the calamity on their own. State and local budgets are already under deep financial strain as tax revenues start to plummet, and the need for spending on social programs jumps.
“Only the federal government has the resources … to come up with a real solution,” said Goldiner. That means short-term rental assistance for anyone who will regain employment once nonessential businesses can reopen. Those who need longer to get back on their feet could benefit from a federal rent relief program similar to the one implemented after Hurricane Sandy, which required tenants to pay only 30 percent of their income for two years. Others who will be more or less wiped out by the crisis will need ongoing rent vouchers to stay afloat, said Goldiner.
“When you have a national crisis, you need a more national response,” she said.
There may be a silver lining in the crisis for housing advocates, though. If the pandemic hurts the housing market, both Goldiner and Weaver see an opportunity to buy distressed properties and turn them into affordable housing. “We want to take over tons of housing and make it affordable,” Weaver said.
“This is a generational opportunity to shift the housing market,” she said. “We’re not trying to reset the housing market to where it was in February. We’re trying to win something completely different.”