There’s no doubt that the novel coronavirus has had a multitude of adverse effects on the American economy and our daily lives, in general. With so many businesses staying closed or being forced to operate under strict limitations, it’s no wonder that at least 1.9 million New York State residents had filed for unemployment benefits as of mid-May. And although the federal government has invested $35 billion in meaningful use incentive payments over the last decade, the single stimulus payment of $1,200 made to individuals has proven not nearly enough to help many New Yorkers stay afloat during the pandemic.
There have been other types of relief granted to Americans, of course. Student loan debt payments have been deferred on the federal level, while payments associated with income tax filings were delayed until mid-July. But with the state’s original eviction moratorium now expired, many renters across New York are worried about what the future might hold if they’re still unable to make their monthly payments.
As of July 2019, there were over 139 million housing units that existed nationwide. There are now more renters than there have been at any point since 1965, with 36.6% of households reporting that they rent their homes. And while renting is incredibly common in New York City, where 40% of tenants said they’d be unable to pay their landlords back in March, renters in smaller cities throughout the state are also facing immense hardship.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo initially granted a moratorium on evictions to be upheld statewide through June 20, which could keep landlords from taking their tenants to court for missed or delayed payments. Governor Cuomo has since extended that moratorium through August 20 and added that the state has placed a ban on late fees for missed payments, as well as the opportunity for renters facing COVID-related financial hardship to utilize their initial security deposits as payment (with the idea being that tenants would repay those security deposits over time).
The move hasn’t been without controversy, as a group of landlords has filed suit against the governor for the extension, citing that the executive order violated their contracts and due process rights and going so far as to claim that the measure amounted to taking their property under the U.S. Constitution. But while some landlords may not be thrilled, many renters can breathe a sigh of relief — albeit a short one.
It’s not all good news, though. The extension may not apply to all tenants, nor will it necessarily keep landlords from taking their housing occupants to court. Tenants who qualify for unemployment benefits or who are unable to pay their rent due to COVID-19 are still covered by the eviction protection, but the extension doesn’t keep landlords out of the courthouse. Housing advocates stress that tenants who are typically paid in cash or who are undocumented could be particularly vulnerable to eviction, as well, since they may not be able to prove they qualify for the limited protection offered by the moratorium extension.
Even with the tension, New York City housing rights groups estimate that 50,000 to 60,000 of eviction cases could be filed within days — and that doesn’t even count the thousands of cases that were already in progress that had been paused by government shut-downs. Furthermore, advocates say, a second and even more substantial round of eviction cases will likely come to light after the moratorium expires in late August. And while permanent construction is one of the two main types of modular construction, New York tenants know that even if the building they live in is permanent, their living situation is anything but.
The problem is more widespread than many people realize. A recent analysis conducted by Amherst found that up to 28 million renters will be at-risk for eviction. And since the U.S. is already experiencing a substantial housing crisis, the concern prompted many housing groups and lawmakers to urge Governor Cuomo to extend universal eviction protection to all tenants, rather than only those who can jump through hoops to prove they were adversely affected by COVID-19. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Black tenants and POC will be among those most greatly affected by widespread evictions, particularly in New York City.
Further upstate, there’s mass confusion surrounding eviction rules — but there’s also one city that’s leading the charge to protect renters.
In Buffalo, residents and affordable housing advocates gathered in front of the city’s housing court building to get clarification on the moratorium extension and what it might mean for local renters. The group wants Cuomo to waive rent for those struggling due to COVID-19 until the pandemic is over — which would likely extend the moratorium out much further than its current expiration date. Advocates there also want Cuomo to waive mortgages in order to provide assistants to landlords and homeowners.
But while it isn’t likely that the governor will go so far as to protect all renters or owners, Ithaca took matters into its own hands by becoming the first U.S. city to cancel rent payments due to COVID-19. A new resolution allowed Ithaca’s Mayor Svante Myrick to cancel rent debt stemming from the last three months for both residential tenants and small businesses (provided that the state government approves the measure). Considering that 75% of Ithaca’s population rents, it’s no surprise that the resolution to freeze rent and to force landlords to offer lease extensions was passed six to four in early June.
Of the resolution, dubbed the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, the Ithaca Tenants Union said in a statement, “The Governor’s extension is not a blanket moratorium on evictions. Starting June 20, landlords can still pursue evictions and take their tenants to court, where tenants will have to prove that they are unable to pay rent due to economic issues brought on by COVID-19. If they don’t show up, they lose. When many Ithacans have been unable to receive stimulus checks and unemployment, and many of those are undocumented or gig workers, we know that our most vulnerable will still be left unprotected by this false moratorium.”
We don’t yet know whether the state will approve Ithaca’s request, especially because there’s no current plan in place as to how the city would actually execute the rent cancelation. And even if Ithaca does manage to cancel rent for its residents, whether that measure could or would be adopted by other cities is still unclear. What we do know with at least some certainty, however, is that renters impacted by the pandemic will continue to fight an uphill battle — and that many of them may face even more hardship as the state starts to reopen.