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We Won a Strong Rent Relief Program, But More Must Be Done to Protect Tenants and Homeless New Yorkers: Housing Justice for All Responds to State Budget

NEW YORK, NY —- Housing Justice for All, a leading statewide coalition of organizations that represent low-income tenants and homeless New Yorkers, released the following statement in response to the final state budget passed by the state legislature and Governor Cuomo: 

“Over the last year, thousands of tenants and homeless New Yorkers have demanded the state legislature and Governor Cuomo take real action in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the pandemic, over one million households are out of work and behind on rent, and due to a decade of regressive budgets, over 92,000 New Yorkers are living in shelters or on the streets with no relief in sight. The final state budget includes significant victories that are the direct result of relentless tenant and community organizing. In particular, we’re proud of the fact that we won a strong and robust $2.4 billion rent relief program that will help tenants across the state pay off their rent debt accumulated during the COVID crisis. This rent relief program will be available to undocumented New Yorkers, reduces barriers to accessing the money, and includes a year-long rent freeze and protection against evictions. None of that would have happened without our organizing over the past year.

We are likewise encouraged that the State legislature has taken key provisions to finally raise taxes on the wealthy despite the Governor’s objections; Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie must continue to leverage their supermajorities and weaken the Governor’s influence over our budget process.

However, the State legislature caved to pressure from Governor Cuomo and dramatically altered proposals to confront the homelessness crisis. Funding for rental assistance for homeless New Yorkers was cut in half. The Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP) was eliminated from the budget and replaced with a different program rife with bureaucratic barriers which will ensure resources never reach the homeless New Yorkers the program is meant to serve. While some money was allocated for hotel conversions to permanent housing, the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act (HONDA) was not adopted in the final budget, meaning more delay for homeless New Yorkers and more room for the Governor to pursue his own conversion proposal — a real estate subsidy for REBNY.  In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, when it has been as clear as day that housing saves lives, the legislative inaction to help homeless New Yorkers is immoral.

To drive an equitable economic recovery from COVID, New York must do more to invest in the needs of tenants and homeless New Yorkers who will continue to struggle for survival. As it stands, this state budget includes significant provisions like the $2.4 billion rent relief program that will help improve the lives of tenants and communities. Yet the $2.4 billion is nearly entirely paid for with federal resources; as households are slow to return to work, Cuomo and the state legislature must do more to invest in permanent solutions to end homelessness and address the long-term rent affordability crisis. 

In the coming days and weeks, we will be urging immediate legislative action on the following items: extension of our State’s eviction moratorium; passage of the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act (HONDA) to purchase distressed hotels and convert them to housing for the homeless; passage of the Housing Access Voucher Program; and enactment of good cause eviction to stabilize unregulated rental households. We expect and demand swift action on these issues from Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Carl Heastie.

Background:

Key Provisions of the $2.4 Billion COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program: 

  • Funds will be used to pay up to 12 months of rental arrears accrued after Mar. 13, 2020 plus up to three months prospective rent for currently rent-burdened households. 
  • Tenants and landlords are eligible for relief, regardless of immigration status, if they make 80% of AMI or below and can demonstrate risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and are: a) eligible for unemployment, b) experienced a reduction in household income, c) incurred significant COVID-19 related costs, or d) experienced other financial hardship. 
  • Self attestations are permitted for all of the required proof. 
  • No eviction proceedings for holdover or nonpayment of rent can be commenced against applicants until determination of program eligibility is made.
  • Rent arrears will be paid directly to the landlord; landlords who accept rental arrears are required to waive late fees, freeze rents on covered units for one year as well as offer tenants’ one year renewal leases.
  • If the landlord does not comply with the program or cannot be contacted, rent arrears will be held in a fund for 180 days before being reallocated. If the agency cannot reach the landlord during that time, they will send the tenant a letter to establish a rebuttable presumption against the landlord in court if the landlord sues the tenant for arrears. If the landlord does not accept payment within 12 months, rent owed for the covered period shall be considered waived. 

Priorities to End Homelessness, Dropped from the Final Budget: 

The State Senate’s one-house budget included key provisions to end homelessness supported by Housing Justice for All; Speaker Heastie later committed public support to these demands after pressure from grassroots organizations. Both were dropped from the final budget:

  • Housing Access Voucher Program is a permanent, statewide rental assistance program. At least fifty percent of funding in the program will be dedicated to help homeless New Yorkers across the state find stable housing. The rest will go towards eviction prevention for households at risk of becoming homeless. As incomes rise and fall, tenants’ share of the rent rises and falls.
  • Housing Our Neighbors With Dignity Act is a new program that would support the state and nonprofits to purchase financially distressed hotels and commercial spaces to convert them to affordable and supportive housing for homeless and low-income New Yorkers. All units will be permanently affordable, non-profit operated, rent stabilized, and high quality, and the program would neither threaten good hospitality jobs nor override local land use authority. With the consequences of the pandemic on real estate, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage a moment with many distressed properties to make a meaningful impact on our homelessness crisis.
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