Legislature Produces Some Progressive Wins in 2021

A supermajority makes a difference

A supermajority makes a difference. Last November’s election expanded the Democratic majority in the New York State Senate to 43-20, and several new members who defeated centrist Democrats in the primaries by running on unabashedly pro-tenant platforms have formed a socialist caucus. Both the Senate and Assembly now have enough votes to override a veto by Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

That has weakened Cuomo’s negotiating power – along with a cascade of scandals, such as accusations by several women that he sexually harassed them, and allegations that he covered up deaths from COVID-19 in nursing homes. But Cuomo’s indirect influence and his unique ability to water down progressive legislation were still evident this session.

One thing frustrating for tenant advocates was that for the second session in a row, both the state capitol and the Legislative Office Building across the street remained closed to the public because of pandemic restrictions, making it difficult to lobby legislators and their staff in person. They were not reopened until a week after the legislature went home on June 11. 

Nevertheless, the session produced some positive results. The Legislature forced Cuomo to agree to raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers, something he has resisted since he became governor a decade ago, and the additional revenue will be used to fund some progressive initiatives. It was only one-tenth of what advocates were calling for as part of a campaign to tax the rich, but it’s a start.

Rent-relief programs

Last year, the Legislature also enacted a stronger program to help tenants who lost their jobs or income due to the COVID-19 pandemic pay back they rent owed. Last year’s program had only $100 million in funding, and tenant advocates warned that its onerous eligibility requirements would make it next to impossible to qualify. More than half the tenants who applied were rejected, and those who did qualify only received a small portion of their arrears, leaving them still vulnerable to eviction. In two rounds, the state was able to distribute only $60 million. This intensified the growing calls for the state to cancel rent for all tenants and give the neediest landlords relief.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), enacted this year, has much more liberal eligibility provisions, and will have much more money: $2.3 billion in federal funds and $100 million in state funds. The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance began taking online applications on June 1, and as Tenant/Inquilino went to press, was promising to begin making payments in July. But there have been problems with the rollout, and as of July 1, not a dime of the money allocated for rent relief by federal and state governments in the last 12 months had been paid out. Still, more than 100,000 tenants have successfully filed applications so far.

While ERAP falls short of cancelling rent, it will pay up to twelve months of back rent for those who qualify, plus three additional months of prospective rent for tenants who are rent-burdened, defined as spending more than 30 percent of their household income on rent.

 It will also pay back utility bills. The funds will be paid directly to landlords and utility companies. 

Another clear signal of the legislature’s progressive shift is the establishment of a $2.1 billion fund for excluded workers — the undocumented immigrants who were left out of all federal COVID-19 financial relief. That program was enacted after excluded workers went on a 23-day hunger strike, with Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes (D-Brooklyn), a longtime tenant organizer from Sunset Park, joining them for the final two weeks.

Undocumented workers who can prove they lost employment during the pandemic will be eligible for a $15,600 one-time payment. Those who can’t document that they lost income will be able to claim a $3,200 payment, equivalent to the previous federal stimulus payments most Americans have already received. The program will begin accepting applications in August.

‘Good Cause’ still stalled

But for the third year in a row, state legislators failed to enact the measure that would give the most tenants a fighting chance to stay in their homes once pandemic-era protections are lifted and rent relief has been exhausted: a ban on evictions without “good cause.”

That bill would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants without a specific reason, such as nonpayment or creating a nuisance. That would make it safer for unregulated tenants to organize without fear of retaliation, expanding the reach and power of the tenant movement exponentially. The bill also includes protections against excessive rent increases, which could be effectively the equivalent of an eviction. But it would be up to a judge to determine if the eviction or rent hike is justified. 

After extensive canvassing by tenant advocates all over the state, the bill enjoys broad popularity, but landlords believe it will be the “gateway drug” to full universal rent control. The real-estate lobby has begun to organize small landlords under innocuous-sounding organizations with names like “Under One Roof” to appeal to upstate and Long Island centrists within the Senate and Assembly Democratic conferences, and falsely claiming to represent the interests of both landlords and tenants. These efforts have created enough confusion to stall the legislation. 

Limited aid for homeless

The Legislature’s deference to Cuomo was felt most profoundly in its failure to include the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), one of the tenant movement’s main demands, in the state budget enacted in April. The program would have given rent vouchers to eligible individuals and families who are homeless or in imminent danger of losing their housing. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), the chairs of their chamber’s housing committees, it had broad support in both houses, but was scrapped by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Instead, the Legislature allocated $100 million for housing the homeless, without much of a plan for how to spend that money. The current FHEPS (Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement) rent-voucher program for families who have been evicted or are facing eviction is riddled with problems. 

Late in the session, lawmakers passed the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act (HONDA), introduced by Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx). It will create a way to convert distressed hotels and empty office buildings to permanently affordable, rent-stabilized housing, renovated and maintained by union labor, and managed by nonprofit organizations. But only $100 million was appropriated for it.

HONDA could be an opportunity to dramatically increase the amount of deeply affordable social housing, but the window for action is short. While the hotel industry in New York City has not recovered as it has elsewhere in the country, hotel owners might be more likely to resist conversion if the business shows strong signs of improving. Advocates will need to get significant funding in next year’s budget to act within that window.

For 2022, when tenants will once again be able to lobby in-person in Albany, one priority is repealing the 421-a program, a wasteful tax break to subsidize luxury housing that costs New York City $1.7 billion a year in lost revenue. It will be up for renewal, this time without the threat of sunsetting rent laws that landlords seeking to renew it can use as leverage. Tenants will also seek to end the companion upstate program, 485-a. 

Passing a statewide law to guarantee that tenants facing eviction the right to counsel will also be important; other states have already enacted similar laws. And as the fallout from the pandemic has brought numerous properties into foreclosure, predatory-equity firms like Blackstone and Akelius are circling like vultures. We will need new and effective tools to bring those properties under tenant control, where they belong.

The past year and a half has shown the tenant movement what it looks like to live in a world without the violence of evictions, one where neighbors show up to defend one another’s homes, and where not siding with tenants strongly enough has ended several political careers. As the state’s economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic, winning a new system of decommodified, tenant-controlled social housing will be crucial to achieving a recovery that doesn’t leave tenants back where we were before: Begging for scraps from King Cuomo’s table of austerity.

Esteban Girón is a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Central Brooklyn Democratic Socialists of America, and serves on the board of Tenants PAC.

For information about whether you are eligible for ERAP and advice about how to apply, call the Met Council Tenant Hotline at (212) 979-0611. For information about the Excluded Workers Fund, visit the state Department of Labor website: https://dol.ny.gov/EWF. It has information in 13 languages, and readers can sign up for updates.