N.Y. Legislature Expected to Extend Freeze on Evictions in Rare Special Session


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https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/nyregion/eviction-moratorium-ny-kathy-hochul.html
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The moratorium, which was to expire on Aug. 31, is part of the state’s effort to help tenants struggling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

N.Y. Legislature Expected to Extend Freeze on Evictions in Rare Special Session
State officials are also trying to hasten the distribution of $2.7 billion in renters’ aid, which has been slowed by a number of factors.Credit...Brittainy Newman for The New York Times
N.Y. Legislature Expected to Extend Freeze on Evictions in Rare Special Session

With New York’s eviction moratorium about to expire, the State Legislature will reconvene for an extraordinary session on Wednesday to extend the pandemic-era ban on evictions, a move that would protect tens of thousands of tenants.

In a rare move, Gov. Kathy C. Hochul called state lawmakers back to Albany to consider extending the statewide moratorium, which expires on Tuesday, to Jan. 15. Lawmakers are also expected to modify the moratorium so that it complies with a Supreme Court ruling that blocked a significant provision of the state’s moratorium two weeks ago.

The legislative action would come less than a week after the Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s federal moratorium on evictions, heightening the significance of the state-level safeguards for renters in New York.

“We’re not going to exacerbate what is already a crisis in terms of the homelessness problem,” Ms. Hochul said on Tuesday evening during an address from the State Capitol. “We are not going to allow people who through no fault of their own lost income, were not able to pay and are facing eviction.”

The Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago, which effectively cleared the way for thousands of eviction cases to move forward, blocked a key section of the state law that barred eviction cases from proceeding if a tenant submitted a form declaring that they had experienced economic hardship because of the pandemic.

The court sided with a group of landlords who argued that they had no way of challenging a tenant’s so-called hardship declaration. Landlords argued that tenants could use hardship declarations to game the state law and remain in a landlord’s property without paying rent even when they had the ability to do so.

While they are still finalizing the details of the legislation, Democratic lawmakers said they expect to address the court ruling by voting on a measure on Wednesday to adjust the moratorium so that landlords have a mechanism to contest the hardship claims in court.

Extending the moratorium will serve another important purpose: It will give the state more time to speed up the distribution of $2.7 billion in stalled aid that is meant to help struggling tenants cover unpaid rent and utilities, ultimately keeping them in their homes.

The rollout of the state-administered program, which began accepting applications in June, has been marred by a series of technical glitches, a convoluted application process and the fact that many tenants and landlords don’t even know it exists. So far, more than $203 million — or about 7 percent of the total money — has been distributed, state officials said.

“There’s still tens of thousands of people who are housing stressed,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens and the deputy majority leader, “who have not been able to get the emergency rent relief money because the state has done a horrible job of administering it, who are at risk and need protection.”

He added, “So I’m glad we’re going back to handle this and buy some more time for that $2 billion to get to people who need it.”

Ms. Hochul, a Democrat who took office last week following Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s resignation, has made rectifying the program and getting more relief money, more quickly, to more landlords one of her top priorities.

Indeed, delivering the aid to tenants and property owners still contending with a mountain of unpaid bills as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will be one of the early tests of Ms. Hochul’s week-old tenure.

How she works with legislators to address the moratorium could help determine the type of working relationship she might establish with Democratic lawmakers, who control the Legislature and were often at odds with Mr. Cuomo. Whether or not she can expedite the rent relief money could shed light on how effective she is at steering the state’s massive bureaucracy.

Ms. Hochul, who has the power to set the legislative agenda during an extraordinary session, said on Tuesday that lawmakers would also consider appointments to a recently created board that will oversee the state’s new marijuana legalization program, which stalled under Mr. Cuomo.

Democrats in the Senate and the Assembly negotiated a plan to modify the moratorium with Ms. Hochul this week. Extending the state moratorium for a few months, lawmakers said, is relatively straightforward.

“I think the only fair thing to do is to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision and give landlords an option for their due process,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from Upper Manhattan. “I don’t think that, as elected officials, we can responsibly allow the moratorium to end.”

The language of the legislation lawmakers will vote on still has not been made public, but some landlord groups have already threatened to sue if they believe the legislation infringes on a landlord’s rights.

Still, there appears to be near-universal consensus in Albany — among tenant groups, landlords, Democrats and even many Republicans, who are in the minority — that an extension of the moratorium is futile if the outstanding rent relief money isn’t quickly disbursed.

More than 800,000 households statewide are behind on rent, most of them low-income people and people of color, according to one analysis of census data from late June and early July. The $2.7 billion in rent aid, which comes mostly from federal pandemic relief packages, is meant to help low-income renters avoid evictions.

The aid can cover up to 12 months of unpaid rent, three months of future rent and utility bills. The payments go straight to landlords, many of whom are saddled with costs of their own, such as mortgages and property taxes.

But the state program handling the money, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, known as ERAP, faced intense scrutiny after a lackluster launch: By the end of June, New York was one of only two states where no aid had been sent out.

In late July, Mr. Cuomo, who lawmakers and advocates claimed was not particularly invested in making the program work, promised to “streamline” the application process. A few weeks later, however, Mr. Cuomo resigned following sexual harassment claims from several women, leaving Ms. Hochul to oversee the future of the program.

“If a moratorium must be extended, then we need assurances as property owners and landlords that they are actually going to fix the ERAP program to prevent evictions in the first place,” said Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association representing about 4,000 building owners.

He added that a moratorium “does nothing to relieve the debt and financial burden renters keep accumulating even as the moratorium keeps getting extended.”

So far, roughly $203 million in direct payments have been made to 15,000 landlords, according to state officials, who argue they have made progress in recent weeks. Another $600 million has been obligated, but not distributed. More than 46,000 tenants have had their applications provisionally approved, but discrepancies in information between the tenant and landlord applications have led to a holdup, officials said.

“As intended, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program is providing critical assistance to struggling New Yorkers, while also ensuring that all those who apply are protected from eviction while their application is pending,” said Anthony Farmer, the spokesman for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is administering the program.

Last week, Ms. Hochul announced that the state would invest an additional $1 million in marketing and outreach efforts to raise awareness about the rent relief program and get more people to apply. She also ordered “a rapid review” of the program’s workflow and reassigned 100 contracted staff to work solely on pending applications and accelerate payments.

Mr. Martin said that his group’s focus has been on educating small property owners about the program so they can, in turn, educate their tenants, saying that “tenants are completely confused as to how the program protects them or doesn’t.” He said, for example, that some of his members’ tenants are under the false impression that their rent has been forgiven as a result of the moratorium.

And some housing lawyers said that while some landlords may be refusing to accept the relief money, many haven’t been able to figure out how to navigate the convoluted process to obtain it.

Judith Goldiner, who leads the civil law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society, said that extending the moratorium until January was a crucial layer of protection to keep tenants in their homes while state officials scramble to get the money out the door.

“It is so necessary in order to solve the gap between people who need help but don’t know that the ERAP money is there and so that we can prevent evictions while we get the money out,” she said. “It’s very critical from a public health perspective and the homeless crisis that we would otherwise be facing.”