Assembly speaker fast-tracks rent relief bill

Heastie steers measure around housing committee, which was set to vote this morning

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (Getty)
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (Getty)

A rent-relief bill facing an uphill battle in the Assembly’s housing committee will head to the chamber floor for a vote after Speaker Carl Heastie abruptly canceled the committee meeting this morning.

The Rent Relief Act of 2020 would provide $100 million in rental vouchers to landlords whose tenants can prove they qualify, but apparently would not have made it past the housing committee.

“They were worried they didn’t have the votes in the committee, so they’re bypassing it,” said Assembly member Harvey Epstein, who serves on the housing committee.

Tenant advocates have raised numerous concerns about the bill, which sources say is likely to pass the Senate and Assembly today.

The decision to cancel the committee’s meeting was made after Heastie had a series of one-on-one conversations with its members, said Assembly member Walter Mosley, another member of the housing committee, who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene and is a sponsor of the bill.

“The speaker had conversations with all these members to gauge the sentiment of the committee and the chair,” Mosley said, referring to committee head Steve Cymbrowitz of Brooklyn. “I know there were members who felt like the bill could have been a little more robust on a number of issues.”

Mosley said he did not know why Heastie had canceled the meeting, but acknowledged the move was unusual. He chalked it up to the unique challenges of legislating during a pandemic.

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“We’re not living in typical times, and this is not a typical session,” Mosley said.

A spokesperson for Heastie offered another explanation, saying the meeting was canceled an hour before it was planned to save time with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot beginning Thursday evening.

“For the sake of expediency, and because the bill was already on the Ways and Means [Committee] agenda, we re-referenced it to save time and out of respect for the religious observance,” the Assembly spokesperson said.

Some members of the assembly called that explanation “dishonest,” and the spokesperson did not respond to requests to clarify. The religious holiday does not explain the last-minute cancellation, Epstein said.

“That’s not democratic,” said Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the housing committee who said she was waiting for a Zoom link to start the meeting when she received a notification it was canceled. “I even put a blazer on!”

Tenant advocates have raised concerns that the bill is not sufficient to address many renters’ financial hardship and does not actually provide assistance to tenants, but instead gives a rental voucher to landlords.

To qualify for the assistance, tenants would need to demonstrate that they earned below 80 percent of area median income before the pandemic. Its primary sponsor, Sen. Brian Kavanagh, acknowledged that process places a greater burden on undocumented tenants. The bill’s modest price tag — $100 million — is also not expected to stretch very far, after a quarter of New York tenants did not pay rent in May.