The New York Legislature on Monday passed one of the most comprehensive anti-eviction laws in the nation, as the state contends with high levels of unemployment and a pandemic that has taken 37,000 lives statewide.
For months, tenants and advocacy groups have been dreading the end-of-year expiration of eviction bans that have kept people in their homes despite their inability to pay rent. Under the new measure, landlords would be barred from evicting most tenants for at least another 60 days.
A tenant in danger of being kicked out of a home could submit a document stating financial hardship related to the coronavirus to postpone an eviction.
The legislation would also make it harder for banks to foreclose on smaller landlords who are themselves struggling to pay bills. But advocacy groups for landlords said the bill could leave many in a lurch.
The Legislature is convening an unusual special session between Christmas and New Year’s to pass the measure, acting quickly because the governor’s executive order barring many evictions is expiring on Dec. 31.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he will sign the measure, which would go into effect immediately.
The state’s emergency action comes after President Trump signed on Sunday a $900 billion relief package, which included $1.3 billion in rental relief for New Yorkers — and two days after unemployment benefits expired for millions of Americans. The state and federal legislation speak to the precarious financial situation facing millions of Americans, nine months into the pandemic.
In New York State, eviction proceedings have continued, but landlords have largely been barred from physically removing tenants from their homes. A smattering of evictions resumed in October, particularly for those tenants who were unable to convince judges that their financial hardships were related to the coronavirus. Tenants whose cases revolved around disputes other than nonpayment of rent could also be evicted.
As of late November, there have been 38 requests for eviction warrants in New York City, according to a recent analysis by the New York University Furman Center. Every one of those cases began before the pandemic and most involved properties in central Brooklyn.
Since October, Zellnor Myrie, a state senator representing central Brooklyn, has had at least three eviction warrants issued in his district. The most recent warrant was issued for a tenant who was unable to pay rent.
“So even with the constellation of moratoria, there have still been landlords going after tenants,” said Mr. Myrie, a sponsor of the legislation.
During the pandemic, Winsome Pendergrass, 63, a tenant and activist from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, lost her main source of income providing in-home care. Three months behind in rent, she said the legislation will bring her relief.
“I myself suffer from high blood pressure and I don’t want to be running out there and overexert myself in the pandemic, because the money I am coming up with is just to pay the rent,” she said.
Tenant lawyers and advocacy groups said the state law would prevent landlords from throwing thousands of financially-strapped renters onto the streets in the winter as virus case numbers continue to rise.
“It’s going to save a lot of people’s homes,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “It’s going to save lives.”
But landlords argue the bill oversteps, allowing tenants to avoid eviction by merely stating financial hardship rather than proving it.
“With no requirement of proof that the Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected their income, and no income limitation to qualify for eviction protection, a tenant whose household income went from a half-million dollars to $250,000 would qualify for eviction protection by declaring that their income has been ‘significantly reduced,’” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.
The new state law would allow evictions to proceed in cases where judges find tenants have persistently created a nuisance for neighbors, like playing loud music at 3 a.m., or created hazardous conditions.
Under the new legislation, a tenant could submit a written declaration to a landlord indicating lost income or increased costs because of the pandemic, or that moving during the pandemic would pose a “significant health risk.” The landlord would not be allowed to begin eviction proceedings until at least May 1.
For eviction cases that are already working their way through the courts, the law would halt proceedings for at least 60 days.
Since March, the governor, the state’s courts and the legislature have instituted a series of sometimes overlapping measures designed to forestall evictions during a crisis that has thrown millions out of work, and made it untenable for many tenants to pay rent. Tenants’ inability to pay their landlords has, in turn, made it difficult for some property owners to pay their own bills.
But the ever-shifting state rules and court guidance have sown substantial confusion among renters seeking to make sense of the legal morass. Tenant attorneys have also expressed displeasure with how some housing court judges interpret the law.
More than elsewhere, courts in the Albany region and in Rochester “have been remarkably unsympathetic to tenants’ situations,” Ms. Davidson said.
The new law is by no means a panacea. Tenants will continue to owe landlords any back rent they haven’t paid, once the moratorium ends.
The $1.3 billion in rent relief authorized by the federal government should help, Ms. Davidson said, but it will not be enough to cover all tenants’ back rent.
Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, a tenants rights group, praised the law as “very close” to everything his organization wanted, but also warned that, “when this is all lifted, there will be people owing thousands and thousands of back rent they cannot pay.”