In a last-minute session before temporary limits on evictions expired at the end of the year, the New York State Legislature on Dec. 28 enacted a moratorium on evictions until May 1 for tenants who declare COVID-related hardship. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it later that night.
The bill, the COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020, will prohibit evicting tenants who file a form with their landlord stating that they have suffered hardships from the pandemic such as lost income or increased expenses, or that a household member is 65 or older or has a health condition that would put them at “increased risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19” if they had to move. The ban covers both evictions for nonpayment and those of tenants in non-regulated units whose leases have expired. Owners, however, can still oust tenants who have not filed that form or are creating health hazards or major nuisances, and false declarations are punishable as perjury.
Tenants can file the form before their landlord has made any attempt to evict them, and filing it will stop the eviction process at any point from the first demand to a final warrant of dispossession, says Met Council program director Andrea Shapiro.
“This legislation is a testament to the power of tenants to organize and win, particularly in the black and brown communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” Met Council executive director Ava Farkas said in a statement. “However, this moratorium is not enough. It is slated to end May 1, even though we all know that the pandemic and its effects are not magically going to end on that date. The moratorium must be extended at least until the end of 2021 to ensure tenants have time to get back on their feet.”
The vote was 40-21 in the state Senate, along party lines except for opposition from nominal Democrat Simcha Felder of Brooklyn. The Assembly passed it by 96-50, with a few Democrats, mostly from upstate, voting no. It was toned down from an earlier bill, sponsored by state Senator Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), that would have extended the moratorium until a year after the pandemic state of emergency is officially lifted.
The legislation places a similar moratorium on foreclosure proceedings and tax-lien sales for homeowners and small landlords who own 10 or fewer residential dwellings. They can file hardship declarations with their mortgage lender, another foreclosing party, or a court that would prevent a foreclosure. It also extends the Senior Citizens’ Homeowner Exemption and Disabled Homeowner Exemption for a year without requiring recipients to recertify.
“The new law does not absolve renters, homeowners and small landlords of their housing-related financial obligations—it simply provides them with a four-month hiatus from these obligations, which should be enough time, hopefully, for subsequent federal relief and other assistance programs to be enacted,” Sen. Pete Harckham (D-Westchester-Putnam-Dutchess) said in a statement.
Sen. Pamela Hemling (R-C-Canandaigua), who voted no, said in a statement that renters deserve assistance, but this bill “will not help people get back to work or help them meet their obligations.” There are federal and state rent-relief programs, she added, calling the legislation “redundant action that will only add more bureaucracy.”
The federal COVID-relief bill enacted in late December will provide $25 billion in rental aid, somewhat less than $3,000 per capita if the National Council of State Housing Agencies’ September projection that 8.4 million households might be facing eviction cases by January is accurate. It also extends the federal Centers for Disease Control moratorium on evicting people for nonpayment if they’ve have lost income from pandemic-related causes for another month, until Jan. 31.
Organizing to demand that the state stop evictions was “nonstop” despite being hampered by restrictions on personal contact during the pandemic, says Shapiro. In the two weeks before the vote, people made more than 1,000 calls to elected officials’ offices about the moratorium. Tenants also protested outside the homes of legislators including Senate Budget Committee chair Brian A. Benjamin (D-Manhattan); Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh (D-WFP-Manhattan); Assemblymember Erik Dilan (D-Brooklyn); and Assembly Judiciary Committee chair Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx)—where they sang Christmas carols.
Tenants’ intent was to ensure that legislators “wouldn’t forget that people were being evicted,” says Shapiro. “The eviction defenses in Rochester were really powerful.”
In Rochester, police in riot gear arrested 15 people Dec. 18 while breaking up a blockade attempting to prevent the eviction of Clianda Florence-Yarde, a teacher and single mother of three children. Among those arrested on the icy night were Assemblymember Demond Meeks (D-Rochester), who was grabbed while broadcasting the blockade on social media.
That organizing prevented a “trickle of evictions” from turning into a torrent, says Shapiro. Only about 100 people have been evicted statewide since March, she says, down from nearly 100 a day in 2018, before laws expanding tenants protections and right to counsel went into effect.
“The world’s not falling apart. People are staying in their homes,” she adds. “We could have had even more people die.”
Still, the resumption of evictions in Albany, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Rochester “was showing what was to come,” she says, and the city’s Housing Courts were “overwhelmed” by people trying to answer cases their landlords had filed.
Tenant organizers now plan to use the hardship-application process as a way to reach as many people as possible. “We will be devoting significant resources, through our hotline and outreach canvassing, to helping tenants file hardship declarations and get the protections they deserve,” said Farkas.
As tenants who can’t pay their rent will continue accumulating debts during the moratorium, housing activists will also continue to push for a law cancelling all rent owed during the pandemic.
“The Legislature and the governor must cancel rent and mortgages statewide,” Farkas said. “Otherwise, they are condemning potentially hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to financial ruin. We applaud the Legislature for listening to tenants’ demands for a true eviction moratorium, and expect our representatives’ next focus to be canceling rent without delay.”