Mayor’s tenant agenda short on muscle

De Blasio urges help for renters, but Albany calls the shots

New York /
Apr.April 14, 2020 08:31 AM
A photo illustration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (Credit: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, iStock)

Mayor Bill de Blasio (Credit: Illustration by Alexis Manrodt for The Real Deal, de Blasio by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, iStock)

A “renter relief” agenda unveiled Monday by Mayor Bill de Blasio is good news and bad for the real estate industry.

The plan offers no help for landlords to complement the benefits it would extend to tenants: an eviction moratorium, a rent freeze on rent-stabilized apartments and a deferral on rent payments for tenants who have lost income.

But the mayor has no authority to implement it and scant political capital to push others to do so.

In a PowerPoint slide reminiscent of those displayed daily by his rival, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, de Blasio laid out three “actions to date” and three coming up next. In the former group the mayor included the 90-day eviction ban, which was not his doing; the rent freeze, which will be decided by the Rent Guidelines Board; and a mandate that landlords let tenants use their security deposits to pay rent, which would require a state law.

De Blasio’s “what’s next” list included adding a “tenant helpline” to the 311 system, urging the state to extend the eviction moratorium to 60 days beyond the end of the crisis, and beseeching Albany to let tenants who have lost income to defer rent payments for up to a year.

The mayor does not have much pull in Albany, where Cuomo is ascendant and unlikely to bless anything with de Blasio’s stamp on it. “The governor is the 900-pound gorilla,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at the Marxe School of Baruch College, CUNY. He gave the mayor “no chance at getting what he wants.”

Real estate industry insiders, however, take little heart in knowing that de Blasio — term-limited, discarded by the presidential race and under fire daily for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic — has little pull and even less power to enact his renter-relief plan.

They know that state legislators — Sens. Michael Gianaris and Brad Hoylman, to name two — are pushing some of these measures on their own. But real estate figures still bemoan the mayor’s advancing tenants’ agenda without explaining the impact on landlords and their lenders.

“The mayor raises a number of important issues. But he continues to paint an incomplete picture, one that seems ideologically driven,” one industry insider said. “He doesn’t draw a distinction between those not able to pay rent and those who are deciding not to pay rent.”

Many landlords have talked of making arrangements with tenants whose jobs vanished with the mass closure of businesses. But owners fear that tenants with savings or incomes will also stop paying, knowing that the downturn could last for a while and that landlords cannot pursue evictions until July at the earliest.

“Owners are not in a position not to pay their workers, taxes, utilities, mortgages,” the insider said. “And banks are not in a position to stay solvent” if landlords don’t pay.

Landlord groups such as the Rent Stabilization Association, Community Housing Improvement Program and Real Estate Board of New York have called for rent-relief programs to be paired with help for landlords, such as breaks on property taxes. Few politicians have taken up that mantle.

The governor did spurn the idea of canceling rent, saying his 90-day evictions moratorium was all that is needed now on the rent issue. But, anticipating the need to blunt criticism from tenants, he announced Saturday a partnership with the state’s court system to create a network of volunteer lawyers to provide New Yorkers with free legal assistance. Training is to start next week.


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