Newsday: NY Pols Move to Provide Rent Vouchers, Mortgage Lag in Response to Pandemic

Originally published in Newsday on May 27, 2020.

NY pols move to provide rent vouchers, mortgage lag in response to pandemic

By Yancey Roy

 ALBANY — State legislators said Tuesday they will pass a bill to set aside a big chunk of New York’s federal aid to provide vouchers to help tenants who are unable to pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dubbed the “Emergency Rent Relief Act,” the bill would earmark $100 million in federal funds for New Yorkers who meet income and rent qualifications. It’s one of more than 30 bills the Senate and Assembly said they will take up when they hold legislative sessions for the first time since early April.

Other measures include expanding the use of absentee ballots through the November election, extending the time frame for filing lawsuits for long-ago claims of sexual abuse, extending loan periods for mortgages and permanently banning utilities from shutting off a consumer’s power during a state emergency.

Another measure would expand the ability of local “industrial development agencies” to loan money to small businesses to keep them afloat.

A number of measures codify and strengthen, by putting into law, actions Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had begun under emergency powers granted to him this year by the legislature.

Committees in the two houses began vetting the bills Tuesday, with votes of the full Senate and Assembly expected to begin Wednesday. It will mark the first time the legislature has been in action since approving the state budget April 3 and postponing the rest of its 2020 session to avoid congregating during the peak of the pandemic in New York state.

The rent bill will be the legislature’s response to a push by progressives to “cancel rent” altogether or stage "rent strikes" amid the pandemic. Officials said canceling rent would trigger a domino effect impacting landlords and building owners who couldn’t collect rent, then school districts and local governments, which couldn’t collect property taxes and would face shortfalls.

Instead, the Democratic-controlled legislature will seek to create a voucher system to help renters. It covers the period from April 1 to July 1. To qualify, rent would have to consume more than 30% of a household’s income and that income could be no more than 80% of an area’s median income as of March 7.

The state housing agency also could consider factors such as potential homelessness caused by the failure to pay rent. It’s unclear if Cuomo, also a Democrat, would support the legislation. He previously placed a moratorium on rent-based evictions.

 For homeowners, legislators said they will extend and strengthen a mortgage forbearance program Cuomo launched with emergency powers.

It would make banks and mortgage companies extend rent terms 90 days into the future for homeowners who can demonstrate hardship, and potentially up to six full months.

“We are addressing the ability of many people who, through no fault of their own,” cannot pay rent or mortgages because of the economic shutdown, Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) said at a Senate Housing Committee meeting Tuesday.

“People are in trouble and they can’t pay their mortgage,” Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) added.

The utilities measure automatically would prevent a consumer from being disconnected during a state emergency, as opposed to lawmakers having to impose such a condition in every separate emergency.

The ballot measure would eliminate the need for any voter to provide a reason for requesting to vote absentee. Cuomo implemented this through executive order for the June 23 primary. The legislators’ bill would put that in law and apply it to the November election.