Parties clash over NY extended eviction moratorium

The New York State Capitol in Albany. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a four-month ban on evictions and residential mortgage foreclosures into law Monday night. File photo

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a four-month ban on evictions and residential mortgage foreclosures into law Monday night, after both parties clashed in a rare December legislative session and denied multiple amendments posed by Republicans, to pass the measure as the coronavirus pandemic will persist through much of 2021.

The COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020 passed both houses of the state Legislature to block eviction proceedings with a moratorium through May 1, after Cuomo’s executive order halting evictions expired in September.

The state measure, which first passed through the Senate’s Housing, Construction and Community Development and Rules committees and the Judiciary and Rules committees in the Assembly on Monday afternoon, is aimed at protecting tenants and homeowners facing financial hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation requires tenants, homeowners and small landlords owning 10 rental properties or fewer to submit a legal declaration of financial hardship. The declaration will halt eviction proceedings that started within 30 days of the effective date of the legislation for at least 60 days, or a two-month moratorium.

“This by no means solves the problem,” Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, said from the floor. “We have not provided real relief to help people pay their rent and retain their housing. The last thing we want to allow is to allow people to become homeless by the thousands.”

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 96-50, and 91-55 in the Assembly.

Between 800,000 and 1.2 million households are behind in paying rent of the state’s 4.1 million tenant households, lawmakers said, citing statistics from state housing agencies.

The bill will prevent evicting people from their homes — a public health threat as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across the state and nation, Gianaris said.

Both Democrat-led houses reached an agreement on the legislation over the weekend, Cuomo said during a coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol on Monday, before voicing support for the measure.

“We have an agreement and as soon as that bill is passed, I’ll sign it,” the governor said. “We want to make sure that homeowners are protected, that it doesn’t affect their credit rating, there’s no mortgage foreclosure. We want to get to May 1 and we’ll see what happens by May, but we want to protect tenants. We want to make it simple. We don’t want people evicted.”

“The bill advanced by the Senate Majority will help ensure New York tenants, homeowners and small landlords will not have to fear being kicked out of their homes if they’ve been impacted by this pandemic and economic crisis,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said in a statement. “We will continue to lead New York State forward during this crisis and provide real relief to help New Yorkers in need.”

Senate and Assembly Republicans fought hard against the law, proposing multiple amendments to set an income threshold for tenants who can claim financial hardship, for tenants to make smaller rent payments each month and to submit proof they have also applied for other federal or state relief.

Democrats immediately shot the proposals down.

Democrats also killed a proposal by the Assembly GOP to put an end to Cuomo’s expanded authority and spending power put in place in a March 7 executive order to continue through the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, argued adding the amendment to the emergency eviction moratorium would provide balance to the law.

“It is long past the time to return New York state to representative democracy and re-establish the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government,” Barclay said. “Apparently, those goals don’t appeal to Assembly Democrats.”

State Republicans in both legislative chambers have presented bills multiple times this year to curtail Cuomo’s broadened authorities, but Democrats have squashed each attempt.

“Majority conferences have gotten too comfortable operating under the thumb of the Executive,” Barlacy said. “Today, they squandered yet another opportunity to get state government running the way it was intended.”

Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, questioned leading Senate bill sponsor Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, Brooklyn; to define language in the bill, which would provide relief to tenants and landlords struggling to pay bills because of increased costs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Does increased costs include things like if your cable bill has increased you experienced an increased cost?” Helming asked. “We all just went through the holidays. If you shop too much during the holidays, does that mean you don’t have a financial hardship?”

Small landlords with 10 rental properties or fewer, homeowners or tenants must indicate on their required state form they are experiencing financial hardship for rent obligations. The document is a legal attestation and residents submit the claim under penalty of the law.

Republicans in both chambers argued the bill is too broad and opens the state up for fraudulent claims of financial hardship so people will legally evade paying rent.

Retiring Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, spoke on the floor for the last time Monday before voting against the bill, questioning Kavanagh how many of the 1.2 million New Yorkers also struggled to pay rent before the pandemic began in March.

Kavanagh replied he did not know, but turning people onto the street as the pandemic continues poses a public health risk.

New Yorkers who falsify the document could face fraudulent misdemeanor charges.

No state department or officials will be tasked with verifying a person’s declaration of financial hardship while the moratorium remains in place.

“We do not believe that there is a reasonable, rational, safe way during a pandemic to put millions of people through a process of testing the process of that attestation,” Kavanagh said. “The fairness of this bill comes in treating similarly situationed people similarly. If you are somebody who is going to benefit from this bill because you have a hardship, you are attesting to that hardship under penalty of law.”

Amedore pressed if the moratorium would be extended beyond May 1.

“...are we just using the pandemic as an excuse that this is what we’re going to do for new housing rules and laws? “ Amedore asked. “We are setting up a ticking time bomb here - that’s not what we need.

“This doesn’t bring affordability to the problem we face. This doesn’t help the homeless. This doesn’t help It kicks the can down the road. I think we could have done better.”

Columbia County Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, also voted against the measure she said is bad for the state economy.

“This, indeed, is a strong eviction moratorium - so strong that its strength is flawed,” said Jordan, advocating for an income threshold to claim financial hardship. “...this could lead to someone who decides to do a lot of shopping or unwise spending to state that they have a financial hardship during the pandemic. In short, this bill allows protection to those who truly don’t need it, delays the inevitable evictions, does not provide any payment whatsoever to landlords and is bad for New York’s economy.”

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, criticized the measure for being too general and not doing enough to stop the suffering of tenants or landlords.

The state has spent $40 million of $100 million in federal CARES Act funding for support to tenants and landlords, and Cuomo has implemented several moratoriums on evictions through the pandemic, Ortt argued.

“This legislation simply halts all housing court proceedings without consideration of income level, allowing some of New York’s wealthiest residents to escape their financial obligations by checking off a box,” Ortt said. “Meanwhile, costs on small business owners will continue to pile up, with no relief in sight. Leaders in Albany should be willing to work with all stakeholders to address the current housing challenges to support tenants and owners.”

Gianaris argued New Yorkers who can afford to pay rent, especially millionaires, will not likely commit fraud to scam a landlord or rental corporation.

“That’s kind of funny and contradictory,” Gianaris said. “I promise you the people who are making millions of dollars in income are not renting the basement apartment from the woman who owns the two-story building on the corner.

“We’re trying to get at helping the tens of thousands of tenants in this state, many of whom have lost their jobs at no fault of their own because we have shut down entire segments of our economy through this health pandemic that we’re dealing with.”

Congress’ $908 billion COVID-19 relief bill is slated to provide $1.3 million to New York for rent relief. Officials will devise a plan to use the funds, which were first announced last week, Cuomo and state Budget Director Rob Mujica said.

“We have to get more detail on exactly how much we get and what are the federal regulations that we’re going to need to match,” Cuomo said. “It’s premature for that.”

States are waiting for clear federal guidelines for the funding.

“The money may have to go to local governments,” Mujica said, adding officials need a clear understanding of the federal rules before making plans to allocate the rent relief.

The aid is welcome news, but will not put a dent in the state’s $15 billion revenue shortfall caused by the pandemic.

“Three drops of water does not a bucket fill... and the bucket is called a $15 billion state deficit,” Cuomo said. “This federal government’s bill does virtually nothing for us, and the big fight on this bill where Washington failed was what was called state and local funding.

“This is all but insignificant, these small grants that they’re making,” the governor added. “They make it sound like they accomplished something. They accomplished nothing, when you compare that to the need. It’s like telling a starving family, ‘Well, I gave you two pieces of bread.’ Yeah. Thank you very much.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, released a statement announcing the special session over the weekend.

“Housing is a basic human right,” Heastie said. “Far too many of our friends and neighbors struggled to find safe, affordable housing before COVID-19 hit our state. We in the Assembly will not stand by as our friends, families and neighbors struggle through this unprecedented health care crisis.”

Democrats anticipate passing additional measures in the upcoming legislative session to provide assistance for rental assistance, smaller landlords and homeowners to support the state housing market.

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene Jan. 6.

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