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COVID-affected renters may get a little help from state lawmakers

Legislature passes two bills designed to help some tenants stay ahead of pandemic

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The hole in New York's state budget might be measured in billions, but lawmakers are hoping Gov. Andrew Cuomo will find a spare $100 million in Albany's couch cushions to cover late and missed rent payments by many low-income tenants since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Both the Assembly and senate pushed through its Emergency Rent Relief Act of 2020, intended to award vouchers to landlords still waiting for rent from tenants who might have lost their jobs, or lost significant income, because of the statewide shutdown to "flatten the curve." 

State Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Gustavo Rivera helped get the bill through the upper chamber, but admit they know it's still not enough to help all the renters they say are facing eviction once the pandemic ends.

"I am not under any illusion that this bill is satisfactory," Biaggi said, in a release. "Millions of New Yorkers are struggling to make their rent payments and simply survive — this legislation does not come close to providing the necessary relief. The Emergency Rent Relief Act's limited scope offers assistance to only a marginal number of New Yorkers, leaving many with little to no recourse. I share in the same disappointment that so many renters and advocates have rightfully expressed. But our fight for housing justice is not over yet."

"Clearly this is not a vote I took lightly, and ultimately I am accountable for it," Rivera said, in a statement. "I understand and accept the disappointment among advocates (and) constituents, but I do believe it was necessary to avoid a first wave of evictions."

Tenants who are behind in their rent will have to meet a series of criteria in order to be eligible. Like rent has to eat up at least 30 percent of a household's income each month, and those households can only make up to 8- percent of area median income before March 7.

Area median income is defined each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to the city's housing preservation and development department. That means inside New York City, in order for a family to meet minimum eligibility requirements, it cannot have annual income more than $63,680 for a one-person family, or $81,920 for a three-member family.

Area median income in the city ranges between $79,600 for a one-person family, to $150,100 for a family of eight.

The voucher to the landlord would cover the gap between a renter's cost burden before the pandemic, and what it is now, up to 125 percent of fair market rent. 

Renters living in an apartment managed by the New York City Housing Authority are not eligible.

That's not the only bill from the legislature sitting on Cuomo's desk addressing rent and eviction issues in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz introduced a bill that quickly passed both chambers making it impossible for landlords to evict tenants who didn't pay rent during the pandemic — ever.

His bill would allow landlords to seek a monetary judgment against tenants owing rent during the pandemic, but it can't cost them their apartment.

"One of the most important things we can do is keep people in their homes and prevent them from becoming homeless," Dinowitz said, in a release. "While we wait on the federal government to do their jobs and provide disaster relief funding to people who have been impacted by COVID-19, this legislation is a life-changing protection for tenants."

Cuomo had issued past executive orders making it temporarily illegal to evict anyone for late rent if they suffered a financial hardship because of the coronavirus. However, once the moratorium expires — right now, scheduled for August — there was nothing preventing landlords from immediately declaring any back rent due immediately, and using that to evict tenants from their units.

Dinowitz's bill would only allow landlords to get a judgment against a renter for money owed during the pandemic, but it would prevent a judge from allowing them to be evicted for that reason. 

Cuomo has not yet indicated whether he will sign either bill into law.

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