Legislature Passes Limited Tenant Relief; No Action Yet on Cancel-Rent Bills

The New York State Legislature did little to protect tenants in its interrupted session this year. The state budget finalized April 1 failed to raise taxes on the rich, and imposed harmful cuts to vital programs. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also agreed to give Governor Andrew Cuomo the unilateral power to make further cuts during the fiscal year.

The governor has already reduced aid to several cities by 20 percent, claiming that he is merely “withholding” those funds until we see if the federal government will bail us out. But that means those places have had to do without that money during the worst of the COVID-19 epidemic.

With the budget passed, the Legislature then suspended its session. It returned briefly in late May, with most members participating remotely. With much of the state’s economy shut down and hundreds of thousands of tenants unable to pay their rent, Housing Justice for All called for passage of a bill to cancel rent for three months for residential and commercial tenants, and mortgage payments for landlords. This was sponsored by Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Yuh- Line Niou (D-Manhattan).

Senate Housing Committee chair Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn) opposed that bill, and it was never brought to the floor for a vote. Instead, Kavanagh and his Assembly counterpart, Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), introduced the Emergency Rent Relief Act of 2020, which allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act stimulus funds to provide a one-time rent payment to low-income tenants who could document that they paid more than 30 percent of income for rent prior to the pandemic, and lost income during the lockdown. The bill passed without opposition in the Senate, and only ten Assemblymembers voted no.

Cuomo signed it June 17, and the state housing agency began taking online applications July 16. Spanish- language applications were not available at first, and though information was available in five other languages, those forms had to be completed in English. Its narrow and detailed meanstest requirements essentially excluded gig workers and undocumented tenants, and did nothing to help homeless people get housing. Still, by July 30, 57,000 applications had been filed, and Cuomo agreed to extend the deadline by another week. It is expected that the program will cover at least part of up to four months’ back rent for roughly 25,000 households.

Another bill passed in May and signed in June is more helpful. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, sponsored by Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx), prohibits the eviction of residential renters who can prove that they lost income during the pandemic, from March 7 until whenever the pandemic state of emergency is officially declared over. Once the courts reopen, landlords can sue those tenants for nonpayment of rent, obtain judgments for the money owed, and garnish their salary to collect it — but cannot evict them based on those money judgments, even after the crisis is declared over.

Budget democracy stalled

The Legislature had another four-day session in July. A statewide coalition of more than 60 organizations lobbied for it to pass the Budget Equity Act, an amendment to the state constitution sponsored by Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx/Westchester) and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) that would give the Legislature the power to amend the governor’s proposed budget. As of now, the governor dictates the content of the budget, both for appropriations and non-budget policy, and the Legislature cannot change a word. It can only vote yes or no on the entire budget.

New York’s governors have increasingly relied on this process to force non-fiscal matters into the budget. This year, Cuomo inserted language shielding nursing-home operators from liability if their patients die of COVID-19, no matter how negligent their actions. Virtually every legislator opposed this, but because it was in the budget, they were powerless.

Because it is a constitutional amendment, the Budget Equity Act has to be passed twice by the Legislature and then approved by the voters. To start that process in time to get it on the ballot next year, both the Senate and the Assembly would have had to pass it before August 3. Next year’s Legislature would then have to pass it a second time. But despite widespread support among their own members, entreaties from several of the primary winners who will be seated next January, and the community groups, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie refused to bring the bill to the floor, where it would almost certainly have passed. Neither leader has made any public statement, so it is not clear why they will not support a change that would benefit them, allowing them to negotiate the budget on an equal footing with the governor. Most observers believe that they are afraid to pick a fight with Cuomo, who would be particularly vindictive in trying to quash an attempt to reduce his near-unilateral control over the process.

Because they missed the August 3 deadline, the earliest this amendment could now get on a statewide ballot would be November 2023.

Three pro-tenant bills

Housing Justice for All is now pushing a package of three bills, none of which saw any action during the July session. One, introduced by Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Niou, would cancel rent and mortgage payments until 90 days after the state of emergency ends. It would also establish a fund to help small landlords, co-ops, and affordable-housing providers.

The second bill, sponsored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), would impose a full rent and foreclosure moratorium until one year after the emergency is lifted.

The third, filed by Kavanagh and Cymbrowitz, would establish a rent-voucher program for people who are homeless or face imminent loss of their housing, beginning October 1. State and local public housing authorities would administer it.

Funds to pay for those vouchers and compensation for small landlords would have to come from either federal aid or increased state revenues.

Cuomo and the legislative leaders are pinning their hopes on Washington. As Tenant/Inquilino went to press, negotiations between the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House over another epidemic- relief bill were at a standstill. The House passed a $3 trillion measure in May that includes funds for state and local governments and $100 billion for rent relief, with $10 billion earmarked for New York State. The Senate’s last-minute proposal is for $1 trillion and includes nothing for states and localities, and no rent relief.

Even if Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agree to what McConnell has called “a bluestate bailout,” however, it will not be enough to make up for the amount of revenue the state has been losing during the epidemic — a budget hole estimated at $30 to $50 billion over the next two years. And if Washington doesn’t come through, New York will face the prospect of amputation-level cuts in services and programs.

One obvious potential source of money is taxing the rich. New York State has 118 billionaires with a collective net worth of $566 billion, and they have gained $77 billion in wealth since mid-March. But Gov. Cuomo has resisted raising taxes on them, many of whom have contributed lavishly to his election campaigns. He insists that they would flee New York for low-tax states. “I literally talk to people all day long who are in their Hamptons house who also lived here, or in their Hudson Valley house or in their Connecticut weekend house,” he said at a press conference Aug. 3.

Speaker Heastie has been calling for taxing the rich for some time, but Stewart-Cousins was mum until July 29, when she issued a statement that said “this crisis calls for multimillionaires and billionaires to help our state shoulder this extraordinary burden.”

The Senate and Assembly are expected to return to session sometime in August, once