Albany pols seek tenant protections while landlords rely on Washington

Legislators push eviction bill even without funding for rent assistance

National /
Apr.April 21, 2020 05:00 PM

Three city and state elected officials called for more federal aid, in part to help landlords whose tenants don’t pay rent. But — to the dismay of some property owners — they’re not waiting to push forward with initiatives to address the social damage caused by the pandemic.

Bronx City Council member Ritchie Torres, who recently recovered from Covid-19, joined State Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman to discuss politics during the pandemic with The Real Deal’s senior managing editor, Erik Engquist. Much of the discussion concerned rent and eviction issues.

Although state legislators have left Albany, they are still crafting bills — including Hoylman and Krueger’s “Safe Harbor Act,” which would extend the moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent for six months after the state emergency concludes.

Landlords fear the bill would prompt tenants to withhold rent, although it does not absolve them of the obligation to pay. But while Hoylman said their bill would work in tandem with one by State Sen. Michael Gianaris to suspend rent, Krueger said they are not encouraging tenants to withhold payment.

Only Washington can “print money in the basement,” said Krueger, referring to Congress’ seemingly limitless ability to borrow (it’s the Federal Reserve that can print money). Such funds could be used for rent vouchers, which the real estate industry has advocated as it opposes measures to cancel rent and mortgage payments.

“We need the federal government to send dramatically more money to states like ours,” said Krueger. “We don’t have the money and we’re not going to.”

As one commenter posted on the webinar’s chat board that landlords need rent to cover property taxes, maintenance and insurance, Hoylman said preventing evictions during the pandemic is necessary even if Congress does not provide enough support for cash-strapped tenants to pay their landlords. His bill protects all tenants —not just those who have lost income because of the pandemic — to “keep New Yorkers secure in their homes” and at lower risk of infection.

The trio of politicians also underscored the authority that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has and the limitations of their powers. In a rushed, opaque budget process in March, Cuomo scuttled the efforts of progressive politicians to increase taxes — to the relief of the real estate industry.

“The governor has a very strong upper hand,” Hoylman said, noting that Cuomo’s soaring approval rating makes him harder to defy. “We have to negotiate, or the governor could just walk away.”

Torres, who is running for Congress, said “all options should be on the table” when contending with the huge budget deficit that the city must close.

“Keep in mind that Michael Bloomberg, who was no democratic socialist, did impose property tax increases in the wake of 9/11,” Torres said, of the former mayor. Torres stopped short of advocating for tax hikes, suggesting instead that the state legislature authorize New York City to issue short-term bonds.

But little will happen without Cuomo’s support: His daily press conferences have garnered national acclaim while his executive powers were greatly expanded to deal with the pandemic. Krueger, Hoylman and Torres all declined to criticize the governor, despite citing evaluations from health experts that earlier action could have prevented such a severe outbreak in New York City.

“If we had jumped into action two or three weeks earlier, outcomes could have been radically different for our state,” Krueger said. “We were not prepared with the right equipment or information — and while I blame the [Trump] administration, we really weren’t prepared even before [Trump] took over.”


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