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State legislature approves new eviction protections, despite GOP opposition

Matt Ryan
New York Now

New York state lawmakers held a special December session Monday to enact new protections for tenants unable to meet rent payments, due to pandemic-related job losses and other financial challenges.

Even though the new legislative session officially begins on Jan. 6, Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the rent protections could not wait for another week. Stewart-Cousins said the measure is “sending out a lifeline of hope to millions of New Yorkers who will now be able to stay in their homes.” 

The legislation places a temporary stay on evictions and some mortgage foreclosures until May 1. Tenants unable to meet rent payments need to submit a form to their landlords declaring financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If legal proceedings have already begun against the tenant, they can submit the form to a court. The eviction proceedings would be stayed for 30 days while the hardship declaration is evaluated.

Senate sponsor Brian Kavanagh, whose NY-26 district covers the Brooklyn Waterfront and Lower Manhattan, explained the bill’s provisions on the Senate floor.

“Our goal here is to create a system where people have to attest, under penalty of law, that they have experienced a hardship and that that hardship is causing them to be unable to meet their rental obligations,” Kavanagh said. “We want to protect them from eviction as an emergency public health measure.”

Landlords who own 10 or fewer units would also be able to file a financial hardship form to avoid foreclosure or tax liens on their property if their tenants cannot pay rent. The legislation also ensures that no one’s credit rating is negatively affected by their inability to make rent or mortgage payments. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has since March issued a series of executive orders extending eviction protections, but sponsors say a law offers more protections.

Cuomo said he agrees and that he planned to sign the bill.

“We want to make it simple. We don't want people evicted. We don't want them to have to go to court to fight the eviction,” Cuomo said. “But we want to make sure they're not committing fraud, either, so they will make representations that will be legally enforceable.” 

Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses of the Legislature, voted against the measure, saying the legislation overreaches.

In a statement, Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt of North Tonawanda said tenants and landlords have already received aid through the federal CARES act and there are existing eviction moratoriums from the governor and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ortt called the bill “radical” and said “socialist advocates will use it as a step toward their goal of eliminating private housing in New York,” something Democrats deny.

Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican from the Capital Region, worries that the hardship form would not include an income threshold and could provide a loophole for the rich to take advantage of the measure.

“This could lead to a high-income individual, someone not in need, to take advantage of the eviction prohibition,” Jordan said. “It could also lead to someone who decides to do a lot of shopping or unwise spending to state that they are having financial hardship.”

Tenants who forgo paying rent and landlords who delay mortgage payments during the pandemic will still have to eventually pay back all of the money that they owe. Republicans and Democrats agree that could be a problem sometime in the near future and lead to a housing crisis.

Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, speaking on the Senate floor, said the measure is a stopgap effort to get through the next few months.

“It by no means solves the problem,” Gianaris said. “It merely allows us to put a finger in the dam to keep it from bursting. But the pressure in the housing market is going to continue to mount.” 

Tenants’ rights advocates agreed, and said while the measure is a good first step, more needs to be done to ensure long-term access to affordable housing.

“No one in a state and country as wealthy as ours should be one emergency or health crisis away from homelessness,” Stanley Fritz, the political director of Citizen Action of New York, said in a statement.

Democrats said they are hopeful that the incoming Biden administration will work with Congress to provide more permanent access to housing and better eviction protections.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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