New York Bans Most Evictions as Tenants Struggle to Pay Rent

Credit…Scott Heins/Getty Images

Cross-posted from the New York Times

The Legislature, addressing hardship caused by the pandemic, convened an unusual special session between Christmas and New Year’s to pass the measure.

The New York Legislature on Monday overwhelmingly passed one of the most comprehensive anti-eviction laws in the nation, as the state contends with high levels of unemployment caused by a pandemic that has taken more than 330,000 lives nationwide.

Tenants and advocacy groups have been dreading the end-of-year expiration of eviction bans that have kept people in their homes even as they fell months behind in their rent. Under the new measure, landlords will be barred from evicting most tenants for at least another 60 days in almost all cases.

The bill would not only block landlords from evicting most tenants but would also protect some small landlords from foreclosure and automatically renew tax exemptions for homeowners who are elderly or disabled.

The Legislature convened an unusual special session between Christmas and New Year’s to pass the measure, acting quickly because the governor’s executive order barring many evictions was slated to expire on Dec. 31. The legislators’ urgency reflected a national concern over the fate of millions of people without jobs and access to job opportunities, as the pandemic continues to eat away at the economy.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wasted no time in signing the bill, which goes into effect immediately.

The passage of the bill comes as a relief for renters like Vincia Barber, a 40-year old tenant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who said she lost her job as a nanny and hasn’t paid rent in months.

“This is the best thing they could do for us today,” said Ms. Barber, who added that two of her relatives had died of the coronavirus.

Once the bill becomes law in New York, tenants like Ms. Barber can protect their homes by submitting a document stating financial hardship related to the coronavirus. As many as 1.2 million New York households are currently at risk of being removed from their homes, according to a database maintained by Stout, a consulting firm.

For eviction cases that are already working their way through the courts, the law will halt proceedings for at least 60 days. Landlords would not be allowed to begin new eviction proceedings until at least May 1.

Some landlords resisted the measure, arguing that the law didn’t adequately distinguish between tenants with resources and those without. They said the new law paid too little heed to property owners who are themselves grappling with diminished financial resources, as tenants fall behind on rent and ground-floor retail tenants go out of business.

The legislation attempts to address those concerns by making it harder for banks to foreclose on smaller landlords who are themselves struggling to pay bills.

The state’s emergency action comes after President Trump signed on Sunday a $900 billion relief package, which included $1.3 billion in rental relief for New Yorkers and extended a federal eviction moratorium — and two days after unemployment benefits expired for millions of Americans. The state and federal legislation speak to the precarious financial situation facing millions of Americans, nine months into the pandemic.

Nationally, an estimated 7 million to 14 million households are at risk for eviction, according to Stout’s database. They are thought to be short between $11 billon and $20 billion in rent.

Other states have taken steps to delay evictions as well. Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut has extended that state’s ban until Feb. 9. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington extended an eviction moratorium until March 31.

New York and the other states acted to plug holes in a federal moratorium that housing advocates say does not do enough to protect tenants from losing their homes. The requirements to qualify for eviction protection are considered onerous, and several states took their own action.

The New York Senate approved the new measure 40 to 21 on Monday, while the State Assembly voted 99 to 4

What makes New York’s new law exceptional is its reach: It eases the process for tenants and small landlords to claim financial hardships and eliminates hurdles for disabled and older homeowners to renew tax exemptions.

In New York State, even under Mr. Cuomo’s order, eviction proceedings have continued, but landlords have largely been barred from physically removing tenants from their homes. A smattering of evictions resumed in October, particularly for those tenants who were unable to convince judges that their financial hardships were related to the coronavirus.

As of late November, there have been 38 requests for eviction warrants in New York City, according to a recent analysis by the New York University Furman Center. Every one of those cases began before the pandemic and most involved properties in central Brooklyn.

Since October, Zellnor Myrie, a state senator representing central Brooklyn, has had at least three eviction warrants issued in his district. The most recent warrant was issued for a tenant who was unable to pay rent.

“So even with the constellation of moratoria, there have still been landlords going after tenants,” said Mr. Myrie, a sponsor of the legislation.

As of November, 8 percent of New York State residents were unemployed, more than twice as many as this time last year. State labor department figures indicate that the unemployment rate in New York City is significantly higher. Small businesses and their employees in Manhattan’s core have been especially hard hit, as commuters have all but vanished.

Winsome Pendergrass, 63, a tenant and activist from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, lost her main source of income providing in-home care. Three months behind in rent, she said the legislation will bring her some relief.

“I myself suffer from high blood pressure and I don’t want to be running out there and overexert myself in the pandemic, because the money I am coming up with is just to pay the rent,” she said.

But landlords argue the bill oversteps, allowing tenants to avoid eviction by merely stating financial hardship rather than proving it.

“With no requirement of proof that the Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected their income, and no income limitation to qualify for eviction protection, a tenant whose household income went from a half-million dollars to $250,000 would qualify for eviction protection by declaring that their income has been ‘significantly reduced,’” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.

The new state law will allow evictions to proceed in cases where judges find tenants have persistently created a nuisance for neighbors, like playing loud music at 3 a.m., or created hazardous conditions.

The hardship declaration would not only cover financial hardship but also a “significant health risk” of moving in the pandemic.

The law also seeks to address the plight of landlords who own 10 or fewer apartments, allowing them to file similar financial hardship declarations with their mortgage lenders, to delay foreclosure proceedings. The law also applies to foreclosures involving tax liens.

Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, said that while he understands the legislators’ desire to focus on smaller landlords, the law is unnecessarily narrow.

“The reality is a majority of renters in this city get their housing from what the legislature would consider non-small operators,” said Mr. Martin, whose organization represents landlords of rent-stabilized buildings. “Even a four- or five-story walk-up has more than 10 units in New York City.”

Since March, the governor, the state’s courts and the legislature have instituted a series of sometimes overlapping measures designed to forestall evictions during a crisis that has thrown millions out of work, and made it untenable for many tenants to pay rent. Tenants’ inability to pay their landlords has, in turn, made it difficult for some property owners to pay their own bills.

But the ever-shifting state rules and court guidance have sown substantial confusion among renters seeking to make sense of the legal morass. Tenant attorneys have also expressed displeasure with how some housing court judges interpret the law.

More than elsewhere, courts in the Albany region and in Rochester “have been remarkably unsympathetic to tenants’ situations,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

The new law is by no means a panacea. Tenants will continue to owe landlords any back rent they haven’t paid, once the moratorium ends.

The $1.3 billion in rent relief authorized by the federal government should help, tenant advocates say, but it will not be enough to cover all tenants’ back rent.

Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, a tenants rights group, praised the law as “very close” to everything his organization wanted, but also warned that “when this is all lifted, there will be people owing thousands and thousands of back rent they cannot pay.”

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