Tenant-backed bills struggle for traction in Albany

Wish list includes housing vouchers, longer eviction moratorium and canceling rent

New York /
Aug.August 26, 2020 07:00 AM
State Sens. Brian Kavanagh and Zellnor Myrie (Getty Images; iStock)

State Sens. Brian Kavanagh and Zellnor Myrie (Getty Images; iStock) 

The tenant coalition behind New York’s biggest legislative shocker in half a century has had little success replicating that victory a year later.

Housing Justice for All’s top-priority bills would extend an eviction moratorium indefinitely, cancel rent and expand housing vouchers for low-income tenants. None has attracted enough support to get a vote from the Democrats who passed a sweeping reform of rent stabilization last year.

“With a lot of the [Senate Democratic conference] members, [Sen. Brian] Kavanagh in particular and some of the mainline Democrats, there is a growing consensus in the conference that you can’t just ‘cancel rent,’” said one politico source. Kavanagh chairs the Senate housing committee.

Of the three bills, the one to cancel rent — sponsored by Julia Salazar in the Senate and Yuh-line Niou in the Assembly — has the least support, with eight co-sponsors in the 63-member Senate and 28 in the 150-member Assembly.

Cea Weaver, the coordinator for Housing Justice for All, said that although “the energy from the tenant movement is powerful,” leveraging it to achieve legislative victories as they did with rent stabilization has been difficult.

“It’s hard for many people to grasp the magnitude of the impending eviction crisis because the constellation of moratoria have mostly kept New Yorkers in their homes,” said Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat sponsoring the bill to extend them. “There has been a recognition by the governor and the courts that eviction relief is necessary, so presumably there is support for longer-term relief.”

Myrie’s extended eviction moratorium bill has garnered more support than cancel-rent measures, and lawmakers say there is a growing push for a statutory approach to halting evictions. Advocates have tried to ramp up pressure on lawmakers while a series of executive and administrative orders to hold evictions at bay has frustrated tenants and landlords.

The bill with the most support would establish a Housing Access Voucher Program. Sponsored by Kavanagh and Assembly housing committee chairman Steven Cymbrowitz, it would provide assistance for tenants at all income levels and those who are undocumented.

Real estate groups have been supportive of the measure, as it would pay tenants’ rent instead of canceling it.

“Landlord and real estate groups are interested in this idea that the government subsidies are a good way to get people in permanent housing,” Kavanagh said of the industry’s support for the bill.

The Real Estate Board of New York voiced its support for rental vouchers, which would provide a steady income stream to property owners and keep tenants housed. Such a program is not at odds with real estate as a business, while canceling rent would be.

But even wide support for the measure will not create funding for it, which REBNY said should come from Washington.

“We need the federal government to step in and step up to provide aid to the city and state to expand unemployment insurance benefits and to create a viable rental voucher program that will keep vulnerable New Yorkers safe in their homes,” said Basha Gerhards, REBNY’s vice president of policy and planning.

To find new sources of funding at the state level, Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the upper chamber’s finance committee, is weighing new taxes on real estate, which she said is a natural choice — given that buildings are “attached to the bedrock beneath Manhattan island.”

“I’ve told real estate and finance: ‘Right now you’re doing well and we’re not, and we need [revenue],’’” said Krueger, referring to the state’s huge budget deficit. “I would love to hear from the real estate industry if they have better answers, but I will just continue to point out that I was open to your giving me a better idea and if you don’t have one, we’re going to go with the ones we’ve got.”


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