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Democrats renew calls to 'cancel rent' ahead of potential housing crisis

New York State Senate.
New York Now
New York State Senate.

Democrats are renewing calls to cancel rent for tenants in New York ahead of an expected flood of eviction proceedings in housing court when the state’s pause on evictions is lifted in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers announced legislation Friday that would cancel rent for all tenants in New York through the COVID-19 state of emergency, and 90 days thereafter.

The bill would also remove the liability from tenants for repayment of cancelled rent, and would ensure that nonpayment wouldn’t affect their credit. The measure would, in turn, create relief funds for small landlords and public housing to supplement lost rent.

“These points are necessary in ensuring our community has a safe place to stay, now and in the future without fear of negative implications,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat who represents parts of Lower Manhattan.

A coalition of Democrats and advocates held a digital news conference Friday to announce their support for the bill, which lawmakers said was still being discussed among their colleagues in hopes that it could come up for a vote later this month.

The bill has been introduced, Niou said, but hasn’t yet been processed and put online, meaning the text of the measure wasn’t immediately available Friday.

Democrats hold the majority in both the state Senate and Assembly, but are divided on how to provide relief to low-income tenants, who’ve struggled to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state Legislature approved a bill in June that allocated $100 million in federal funding to provide rental vouchers for low-income tenants, but the state has yet to establish the statutory program to supply that relief.

Lawmakers approved another bill, as well, that prevents landlords from evicting tenants if they’ve demonstrated financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But tenants would still be on the hook for back rent down the line.

Tenant advocacy groups have called on lawmakers to cancel rent altogether, but some Democrats, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have opposed those measures because of the financial hardship it could pose to landlords and the state.

New York is currently facing a projected $13 billion loss in revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuomo has said he would be unlikely to approve legislation with a significant financial price tag.

But Democrats in support of canceling rent said Friday that New York will experience a widespread housing crisis if the state doesn’t come up with a plan for tenant assistance.

“We do have to continue to push, and unfortunately, I think it’s going to be the crisis smacking us in the face and looking down the road and predicting it’s going to come,” said State Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens.

The legislation announced Friday was packaged during the press conference with two other bills: one that would create a moratorium on evictions for up to a year after New York’s state of emergency ends, and one to provide housing for homeless individuals.

Lawmakers are expected to reconvene in Albany later this month to consider a package of unrelated bills — a mish mash of measures they weren’t able to approve this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s possible that relief for tenants will be among them, but a final schedule of legislation hasn’t been set, Gianaris said.

“Unfortunately, I think more of our colleagues and more of the public needs to see that to react to that and we’re trying as hard as we can to prevent that from happening in the first place,” Gianaris said.

Various barriers to eviction proceedings are currently in place, including an executive order from Cuomo that’s in place through Aug. 20. But landlords are free to file cases now, in preparation for housing court to reopen next month, advocates said.