State Lawmakers Pushing For Coronavirus Rent Cancellation Say Cuomo Is MIA

Senator Julia Salazar

March 24, 2020

Governor Cuomo at a conference last month, urging states not to rely on the federal government for economic assistance

The push to cancel rent in New York is intensifying, as millions of tenants grapple with financial hardship wrought by COVID-19. On the state level, senate legislation to waive rent payments for the next three months now has sixteen co-sponsors, including the backing of one GOP lawmaker. A companion bill will soon be introduced in the Assembly.

However, with one week until most rents are due, the sweeping proposal is still missing the support of one crucial figure: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

According to multiple lawmakers who spoke to Gothamist, the governor has been essentially absent from discussions on the legislation, which was first proposed by Queens State Senator Mike Gianaris last week. Moreover, Cuomo has yet to indicate that he will order a similar measure through executive action, as some legislators say they prefer.

"The governor is dealing with a lot right now," Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, told Gothamist on Tuesday. "But it's a matter of getting it up high enough on his radar because this is incredibly important and we are running out of time."

The legislation would suspend rent payments for 90 days for residential and small business commercial tenants experiencing financial hardship due to the public health crisis, while waiving mortgage payments over the same period for some landlords. A state regulatory body would set parameters on who qualifies.

Several lawmakers who have not yet co-sponsored the bill told Gothamist on Tuesday that they would vote for the measure, including Joseph Addabbo, Leroy Comrie, Simcha Felder, Liz Krueger, Gustavo Rivera, James Sanders, and Luis Sepúlveda. Republican Senator Rich Funke is a co-sponsor.

State Senator Julia Salazar, another co-sponsor, said the legislation had quickly attracted broad support in Albany and among the electorate. "The only thing I can imagine preventing this bill from being passed is the governor," she said. "Other people know what time it is, and know this is necessary."

Another lawmaker, who asked not to be named for fear of angering the governor, said there had not been "substantive conversations" between senators and Cuomo's office.

A spokesperson for the Governor's Office did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries about whether the governor supports the bill.

While Cuomo said last week that New York homeowners impacted by COVID-19 will be able to stop paying their mortgages for 90 days, he has not extended similar relief to tenants. On Sunday, the governor claimed that he "took care of the rent issue" through a statewide suspension of eviction proceedings and pending eviction orders.

However, Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, said the move is nowhere near sufficient. She predicted that tens or hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers could face eviction once the moratorium is lifted and they are forced to pay back their rents.

"The eviction stay, while welcome, is the quiet before the storm," she said. "If thousands of people no longer have homes it’s going to lead to a humanitarian crisis that we haven’t seen in my lifetime."

In New York City, roughly two-thirds of all residents are renters. According to one recent survey, nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers do not have enough saved for a single month's rent if their livelihoods are put on hold due to the virus.

Despite far-reaching efforts to encourage social distancing, some workers say they've continued to place themselves at risk at their jobs — not because they're doing essential work, but because they can't afford to make rent and feed their families without a paycheck.

"Homeowners tend to be wealthier, and elected officials care deeply about constituents who are homeowners and often forget about constituents who are tenants," said Davidson.

Some activists went even further, attributing Cuomo's reticence to bail out the renter class to his close connections to the business community.

"The governor is a real estate guy," said Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator with Housing Justice For All, a statewide coalition that's helped push for the legislation. She pointed to Cuomo's recent inclusion of Bill Mulrow, a director at the private equity behemoth Blackstone Group, on his COVID-19 task force.

"I don't mean that to say that he’s told by Blackstone that he can’t cancel the rent, though I'm sure he is," Weaver continued. "But the governor is oriented toward keeping the business community whole, not on how we keep people in their homes."

While Gianaris said he understood the concerns from parts of the business and banking industries, he predicted they would likely benefit more from a still-pending federal bail-out than renters. Regardless of whether his legislation passes, the senator added, the cascading impact of the crisis will not spare any industry.

"People are going to be incapable of paying rent by the tens of thousands, and then landlords are not going to be able to make their mortgage payments," Gianaris said. "That is the reality what is going to start taking place next week."

"We can put some regulatory structure around that or we can let the housing market devolve into crisis, as everyone gets evicted and banks are foreclosing on properties," he added. "The thing people fail to realize about this proposal is that it's going to happen either way."