In the wake of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s order that requires banks and mortgage servicers to provide 90-day mortgage relief to homeowners, tenants’ advocates and many Democrats in the state legislature would like to see something similar for renters, who make up nearly half of the state’s residents. 

Late Thursday, State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), the Deputy Majority Leader, announced he would shortly release a bill to provide rental relief. He also said he’d be happy to see the governor bypass the legislature and issue an executive order, as Cuomo did for mortgage holders. (On Friday, Cuomo announced he would stop evictions of residential and commercial tenants for 90 days, but did not mention rental relief.)

The following interview is an edited and condensed version of WNYC/Gothamist’s conversation with Gianaris. 

Explain the basic rationale for your proposal. Some of the necessary things that we have done in order to contain the spread of coronavirus include shutting down businesses and that’s inevitably costing people their jobs. And that means they can't meet their obligations, and rent is the largest obligation for most people. To expect people to continue paying their rent, when we have ordered their jobs to be eliminated essentially is grossly unfair – and it’s not just that it's unfair; these are people who would end up homeless without their homes. And so to suspend the rent payments for a period of three months for anyone that has lost work because of the coronavirus pandemic makes all the sense in the world to maintain stability in our communities and to allow people to stay on their feet through this and come out the other side of this in good shape.

And this would also apply to some commercial tenants, too – like store and restaurant owners? Right. This would apply to both individuals and small businesses that have suffered loss as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And so whether it's a small business that is shut down by directive of the government or someone who's lost their work as a result, if we are costing people their businesses or costing people their jobs, we should make sure that we're not costing them their homes

What’s the definition of a small business? That's one of the things where we're going back and forth with. But there are some established definitions of how many employees constitute a small business, and we're working on getting the precise number. But we're very clearly trying to protect small mom-and-pop neighborhood businesses, particularly the restaurants and bars that have been effectively shut down (with the exception of take-out delivery). And there are others as well. But we're certainly not trying to protect large chain businesses that can manage to survive this without this kind of assistance.

Though there are many mid-size businesses being shut down that aren’t chains or corporations, and they’re also subject to high rents in New York City. There's not a single working person who’s not being hurt by what's going on right now, and we are doing our best to triage the situation. But the direction we've been going and where we're protecting people who hold mortgages by declaring a mortgage moratorium or things of that nature are leaving behind the most vulnerable people that are at risk, because they have lots of businesses that have been closed and have very high rents. So, look, we effectively paused our society. We said business is shut down, people work from home. Stop going out into the streets if you can avoid it. We should also pause rent payments as a result because we have ground the economy to a halt. And it's grossly unfair to people to expect them to continue to pay exorbitant rents when they don't have any money coming in.

Though not all landlords are wealthy. Many of them are mom-and-pop, and they have thin margins and have to pay for utilities and supers and repair contractors. What about the effect on them of tenants not paying rent? The reason that the proposal creates a 90-day rent suspension is because it mimics what the governor did by executive order on mortgage payments. There is now a mortgage moratorium of 90 days in place. And if we are creating a moratorium on mortgages, we should also create a suspension of rents because the mortgage holders do not have to pay for three months.

Is there support for this in the legislature, or the governor’s office? Has Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she’s backing it? Since I've announced this, a number of my colleagues have made public statements in support. I'm introducing a bill hopefully in the next day or so though we don't even know exactly when the next [official] session day will be to take up something like this. I'm trying to get this done as quickly as possible, by any means necessary. If the governor sees fit to do something like this by executive order, I'm all for it. I encourage that. And I will certainly do what I can in my power as a member to have the legislature get it done. I can't speak for [the Majority Leader], but I know she and the entire conference is concerned about this problem.