Governor Andrew Cuomo has swooped in to help homeowners out during the COVID-19 public health emergency, but has yet to issue any rent relief for tenants.
Property owners working part-time or who have lost their jobs will be able to refinance their mortgages and stop paying them for 90 days in what the governor called a "bold" but "necessary action."
"That will be a real life economic benefit, but it will also be a stress-reliever for many families," Cuomo said during a press briefing. "Making a mortgage payment can be one of the number one stressors." The announcement would also ensure the waiver would not have a negative effect on credit reports, suspend or postpone foreclosures, and waive fees for overdrafts, ATMs, and credit cards.
But renters—who make up nearly half the state's households and are already more likely to pay more the one-third of their income on housing compared to homeowners—have not received such payment relief from the state amid anticipated mass lay-offs. Cuomo has suspended eviction proceedings indefinitely in New York, though even that moratorium has a loophole that has allowed landlords to file hundreds of new eviction cases against tenants, causing confusion and uncertainty.
"It's unfortunate but not surprising that Cuomo is putting the needs of property owners over the needs of renters," Cea Weaver, a campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a tenants' rights group in New York, told Gothamist after the governor's announcement. "We need rent relief—in the form of canceled rent, for the duration of the crisis—now. Cuomo can do this by executive order, and he must."
The Housing Justice for All campaign has launched a petition to the governor, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and the state's congressional delegation demanding a suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments, as well as a full moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. More than 13,000 people have signed their petition, which is co-sponsored by 16 tenants' rights groups.
"We need billions of dollars to be injected to stabilize people's living situations," Weaver said.
"It's really crazy that so many people are losing their jobs and we don't have the ability to pay rent, so we're calling on the governor to do something about that," Weaver said.
Cuomo's office did not respond to questions about relief for renters.
Though tenants organizing coordinated rent strikes on a building or neighborhood level has historical precedent in New York City, a government-mandated rent suspension would be a first. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, France is suspending utility bills and rent for small businesses. Italy, where the death toll has passed China's at 3,405 on Thursday, has suspended mortgage payments as a part of its own $28 billion package.
New York is "definitely in uncharted waters, but we're in a moment where everything should be on the table," Weaver said.
Cuomo's homeowner rescue comes as momentum for rent suspension builds in New York and across the country since the COVID-19 emergency doubles as an economic crisis.
One economist estimated 500,000 people in New York City alone will lose their jobs, mostly in low-wage hourly industries that have been forced shut under critical measures to "slow the spread" of coronavirus. Weaver said the Housing Justice for All email list had jumped by four times in recent days, and a slew of petitions are gaining tens of thousands of signatures, rapidly growing every hour.
One Change.org petition for rent and mortgage suspension has garnered more than 69,000 signatures since three days ago.
"This crisis is going to bankrupt businesses and people, specifically low-income people who struggle to pay rent as it is in an increasingly high-rent city," said drag queen and City Council candidate Marti Gould Cummings, who started the petition. Cummings has switched to Instagram and Facebook live shows with their husband, who plays piano, after being put out work when nightlife venues were forced closed. "This is going to take a long time to recover from, and that's why we need to put these policies in place now."
A nationwide set of petitions, Rent Strike 2020, directed at state governors, is "600k people strong," according to Washington state congressional candidate Joshua Collins, whose group Rose Caucus, started the campaign. The group is calling for a two-month rent suspension, though is encouraging people to stop paying rent altogether.
Weaver and other tenant organizers raised alarm bells about the Rent Strike 2020 petition, especially since it was led by someone who is not New York-based. Weaver told The Real Deal it was "irresponsible."
"There's a big difference between calling on people to not pay their rent and organizing a rent strike," Weaver added.
It is not clear how many signatures that group's New York form has collected. An email listed for Rose Caucus did not return a request for comment.
Weaver emphasized a rent strike, especially one organized at such a scale, would require tenant leaders in several buildings organizing a dense network across neighborhoods. That's why the Housing Justice for All coalition is specifically demanding a rent suspension for now.
"For people to take that risky step, they need to feel like there's a sense of collectiveness and a sense of security," she said.
Even landlord groups are calling for tenant relief in anticipation of their tenants not being able to pay rent.
"It is absolutely vital that tenants impacted by this crisis are given direct financial support as soon as possible to prevent a potential crash of New York's housing system," Community Housing Improvement Program executive director Jay Martin said in a statement.
CHIP, Small Property Owners of New York, New York Capital Region Apartment Association, and the Real Estate Board of New York called on Cuomo to create a voucher program for tenants whose employment has been affected, a property tax abatement in the case tenants can't pay rent, among other demands.