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Four Months In and No Relief for Renters

July 28, 2020

New York Needs Real Rent Relief That Centers Marginalized Communities

It’s been over four months since Governor Cuomo ordered New York State into lockdown after the onset of COVID-19. The economic blow to millions of households was immediately apparent, but the solutions our government has offered have been piecemeal, haphazard, and insufficient. Without a comprehensive plan that prioritizes the wellbeing of our most marginalized communities, millions of New Yorkers are left without income and without a home. Last week, the State legislature went back into session but did nothing to provide meaningful support for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness or struggling to pay rent. Meanwhile, a new program implemented last week by the New York State Division Of Housing & Community Renewal (HCR) only highlights the government’s failure to address the scale of the crisis and reinforces the marginalization of many of our most vulnerable populations. With another month’s rent coming due at the end of the month, our government needs to take swift, bold, and comprehensive action that meets the scale of the crisis and centers New York’s most marginalized communities to keep millions of New Yorkers in their homes.

So far, government responses have consistently fallen completely short of need, both in scale and prioritization by excluding marginalized communities, offering paltry assistance to those who qualify and have access, and providing funding that is a drop in the bucket compared to the true need. At the federal level, weekly pandemic assistance payments are set to end this week, while New York State’s unemployment rate continued to increase to 15.6% and New York City’s to 20.4% in June 2020. As the effects of the pandemic and lockdown continue, New Yorkers who qualify for uninsurance will have to cover their costs with 50% of their normal earnings and a maximum of $504 per week.

While undocumented workers are twice as likely to lose jobs as the general population, approximately 725,000 undocumented immigrants in New York State are ineligible for State unemployment insurance, pandemic unemployment assistance, and rent relief, and were entirely excluded from the federal CARES stimulus payment of $1,200. Although New York City set up the COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Relief Program to provide one-time payments of $400 to $1,000 to this excluded population, the allocated $20 million serves just 3% of the need. There are further barriers for immigrants to access emergency aid: although 311’s website points visitors to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) website for information about the immigrant relief program, MOIA does not include the program in its resources. Instead of receiving widely available information, applicants have had to be connected to the right community organization at the right time for an opportunity to receive the funds.

The new State COVID Rent Relief Program passed into law in May and rolled out last week only allocated $100 million for rent relief for rent relief. Although 59% of New Yorkers report that their households have lost income, $100 million only covers 5% of the estimated $2 billion rent shortfall in New York as of July 22. Further, it reinforces poverty by design: the program perpetuates tenants’ existing levels of rent burden, which will maintain unaffordable rents for many of those most in need of true relief. Rather than ensuring that tenants have enough money to cover basic necessities during the pandemic, the program prioritizes ensuring that landlords will receive the same level of rent they had prior to COVID.

Meanwhile, the New York State Eviction Moratorium will expire next week, placing tens of thousands at risk of eviction with the pandemic far from over. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, touted as an alternative eviction prevention method, simply opens tenants to new forms of harassment and displacement, while endangering their financial future and pushing them into poverty by allowing the accumulation of rent debt.

Beyond its meager funding, the State COVID Rent Relief Program is inaccessible to many of the tenants who need it most: Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of the program two days before applications opened, with an application period of just two weeks.That’s not nearly enough time for tenants to learn about the program, obtain necessary documents, and submit their application – possibly by design, since the available funds will meet so little of the need. For those without internet access, the barriers increase. And non-English speakers face additional hurdles: although translated application forms are available in six languages on the HCR website, the forms specify that applications must be submitted in English and translated applications are “for instructional purposes only.” State officials gave no advance warning to community-based organizations and tenant advocates to whom tenants have turned to for assistance, and they certainly were not treated as collaborators who could have helped design a system that would work for tenants.

The New York State legislature had a chance to take meaningful action for renters when they went back to Albany last week, but failed to even touch the issue. We need more, we need better, and we need it now. ANHD and its members believe the following principles should guide the government’s approach to real rent relief:

  • We must address the needs of all of our communities’ vulnerable populations. We are all too aware that those most in need of support are often shortchanged, and that several recent federal programs have deliberately excluded undocumented immigrants, who are among the most severely impacted in the current crisis. Any approach to rent relief must center and address the needs of vulnerable and marginalized populations, including undocumented immigrants, those who work or worked in the informal or cash economy, non-English speakers, people without internet access, the unbanked, etc.
  • New York’s renters live in a broad range of housing – basement apartments; rented rooms; rent stabilized, unregulated, and subsidized apartments; small homes; public housing; etc. In some types of housing, leases are uncommon and tenants are month-to-month, or not all residents are included on the lease. Renters across this broad range of housing types still need support and relief to avoid eviction, and we must maintain safe and stable housing situations for as many people as possible.
  • Our communities include homeowners and limited equity coop shareholders as well as renters. We will not allow different members of our community to be pitted against each other, and we cannot withstand a repeat of the foreclosure crisis, which stripped so many Black and Brown families of their assets, displaced homeowners and tenants alike, and left our housing market open for predatory investors to swoop in. Any approach to rent relief must address the needs of vulnerable homeowners alongside renters so that all can weather the current crisis and come out prepared to rebuild our communities to be stronger and more equitable.
  • We must support existing affordable housing, and the community-based institutions that own and manage it. In many neighborhoods, the only truly – and permanently – affordable housing is owned and managed by non-profit, mission-driven developers based in and accountable to the local community. These housing providers operate on razor-thin margins because they maximize the subsidies they receive in order to set rents as low as possible and provide resources and services for their tenants and the broader community. This housing is a public good and precious community resource, and must be supported so that affordable housing and the organizations that provide it remain sustainable.

See here for more on ANHD's priorities for Rent Relief.

New York needs rent relief on the scale of the enormous crisis we face, that is accessible to those with the greatest housing and economic insecurity. In order to accomplish that goal, elected officials must allocate funds that match the crisis, and policy makers must listen to the community organizations that understand how to meet needs on the ground. We urge our elected officials at every level of government to rise to the moment and take extraordinary action to combat both the economic devastation of COVID-19 and the underlying affordability crisis that has left so many New Yorkers so vulnerable in the first place.

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