After more than 25,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, more than 2 million out-of-work New Yorkers receiving unemployment benefits, and some four-and-a-half months into the coronavirus crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo has rolled out a rental assistance program that advocates say is "cruel" and "terrible."
The federally-funded rental assistance program will send out $100 million in payments administered by the New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) for up to a four-month subsidy to landlords and housing providers, so long as their tenants meet a laundry list of requirements.
Such requirements include making below 80 percent of the area median income, proving tenants were paying more than 30 percent of their gross income before March 1st, and showing they've lost income between April 1st and July 31st.
Plus, the subsidy would only make up the difference between a tenant's rent burden pre-pandemic and now. For instance, if a tenant was paying 35 percent of their income on rent before COVID-19, and now pays 50 percent, the subsidy would cover that 15 percent difference.
The rental payment also cannot exceed 125 percent of the fair market rent per month, or about $2,439 for a two-bedroom in NYC. If each household got about $1,000, the program could help about 100,000 families.
"It's critically important that people are able to stay safely in their homes as we progress through our data-driven, phased reopening, and the COVID Rent Relief Program reinforces that commitment with direct assistance to those in the greatest need," Cuomo said in a statement about the program on Tuesday.
Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice for All Coalition, said the two-week application period is "so cruel" and the provisions for who qualifies are "narrow."
"This bill sets an outrageously bad precedent from a public policy perspective," Weaver said. "That's not any kind of voucher program or rent relief program that I could ever get behind."
Esteban Girón, a member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, called the bill "terrible."
"To me, this legislation was a way for elected officials to be able to come home before the primaries and say that they did something about rent," Girón, who got sick with coronavirus in mid-March and still has trouble breathing, said during a press call with housing advocates pushing for a separate slate of bills, including fully cancelling rent.
"On several fronts, I don't qualify for this aid, but I don't even know who would, like I'm looking at these particular provisions. It's so specific. It's almost like it was tailored after one specific person that maybe wrote their elected officials and they decided to make it that," he added.
Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard defended the program, noting it was implemented as defined by the legislature.
"The legislation builds on the rent relief measures Governor Cuomo previously announced to provide relief during the COVID crisis, including: prohibiting evictions or foreclosures for both residential and commercial tenants, banning late fees for missed rent payments; and allowing renters facing financial hardship due to COVID-19 to use their security deposit as payment and repay their security deposit over time," Girouard said.
The program is funded by the federal CARES Act and administered though procedures set up under state legislation led by State Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Steve Cymbrowitz.
The Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn lawmaker previously told Gothamist it was "totally inadequate." When asked on Wednesday if he still thought that to be true, he told us, "Absolutely."
He noted the HCR is "admirable" for getting the program rolled out four weeks after the legislation passed.
"But it is really just a start, and it is a limited start," Kavanagh said. "Because it's only $100 million it is targeted at people [who] had to have been low income before. This program is just the beginning."
This month, he and Cymbrowitz announced another rent program, the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, designed for the next round of federal funds allocated through Congress from the HEROES Act, which is currently languishing in the Senate and would include some $100 billion in rent relief nationwide. The senator's office says New York could expect about $10 billion if it's passed.
First proposed in late March, Kavanagh's second emergency rental assistance program was recently expanded to offer vouchers for people experiencing homelessness for two years of aid and limit assistance to those making less than 120 percent of the area median income. Groups like the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, the Coalition for the Homeless, and Community Housing Improvement Program support the legislation.
Kavanagh also wants the eviction moratorium to be extended again. It was quietly cut short for residential tenants after Cuomo signed another measure to bar landlords from forcing tenants out of their homes, but still allows for them to take tenants to court for the rent money itself, dubbed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act.
"My landlord and I could not even have lunch in an indoor restaurant, but somehow my landlord is entitled to require me to show up in court and defend my right to stay in my home," he said. "The eviction moratorium—it was put in place by the governor. It could be continued with a stroke of the pen of the governor."
But all of these measures fall short of fully canceling rent, as tenants lead rent strikes during the economic crisis. While some have received unemployment benefits and an extra $600 a week through expanded pandemic assistance through the CARES Act, the pandemic payments will expire this month.
Housing activists with the Housing Justice for All and Right to Counsel NYC Coalitions are calling for a separate slate of bills to relieve financially struggling New Yorkers—including a new "cancel rent" bill led by State Sen. Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou.
Their legislation—the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020—would waive rent and mortgages for renters and small homeowners until three months after the state of emergency. An earlier cancel rent effort failed to State legislators behind the bill recognize it's likely to face opposition from the governor, and landlord groups already raised concerns about the proposal.
Housing Justice for All also support an extended eviction moratorium led by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Karines Reyes, as well as Kavanagh's and Cymbrowitz's Housing Access Voucher Program, the latter which was proposed before the COVID-19 pandemic to target the homelessness crisis in New York with state money.
"We will review any legislation that passes the legislature," Cuomo spokesperson Girouard said.