The Current Situation
In New York City and across the country, tenants have struggled to afford rent payments during the pandemic. A combination of federal and state relief measures have staved off evictions, but a crisis looms. Last summer, the Furman Center published an in-depth analysis of the impact the CARES Act package had on rent deficits in New York State. Besides broadening the accessibility and duration of unemployment insurance (UI), the bill provided taxable weekly $600 supplemental benefits, or Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), to UI recipients between April 1, 2020 and July 31, 2020. The Center found that the combination of standard state unemployment benefits and emergency federal assistance was effective in reducing rent burden to, and in some cases below, the 30% income distress threshold, but that, without sustained unemployment assistance, rent burdens would become untenable (with some renter households facing rent burdens of up to 80% of income). Rental arrears have continued to accumulate, leaving tenants in debt and at risk of eviction and disrupting the flow of rental income that many landlords rely on to make mortgage payments and maintain their buildings.
February 1, 2021, was the deadline for the latest round of New York state’s COVID Rent Relief Extension Program. The program’s eligibility criteria had been updated from the previous round of applications: to receive subsidies, tenants had to prove: 1) NYS permanent residence; 2) loss of income between April 1, 2020 and July 31, 2020; 3) household income at or below 80% of Area Median Income as determined by HUD before March 7, 2020 and at the time of form submission; and 4) rent burden (>30% of income spent on rent) between April 1, 2020 and July 31, 2020. Tenants could apply for up to four months of subsidies (a one-time direct deposit to landlords). The subsidy reduced tenants’ rent burden to 30%. At least one household member had to provide proof of U.S. citizenship or qualifying immigration status, and tenants in public housing were not eligible. Applications denied in the previous round were automatically reconsidered using updated data to determine eligibility. Recent proposed legislation would open up a new round of applications for rent relief.
The Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief package is set to allocate $1.5 billion in federal rental assistance to the state of New York, on top of the $1.3 billion provided by the Trump administration last year. That comes as landlords in the city have seen, at minimum, a $1 billion windfall in rent payments year-to-year, as of late February 2021. Some estimates put that figure closer to $2 billion. That level of federal intervention proved effective in stabilizing the housing market during the Great Recession. Under Shaun’s guidance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development implemented the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), which marked the largest activation of federal funds for homelessness prevention in the nation’s history, helping 1.3 million people find or keep stable housing with rapid delivery through a range of state and local partners (public agencies and nonprofits).
On April 14, 2020, U.S Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) introduced the Ensuring HOMES Act, which outlines concrete steps for preventing mass eviction and foreclosure once the national COVID-19 emergency officially ends and state-level bans on evictions and foreclosures terminate. The bill provides low-interest loans, maxed at half of waived rent, to landlords, conditioned on commitments: 1) not to evict a tenant for 60 days after FEMA has terminated the national emergency; and 2) to extend a tenant’s lease upon request for the same duration. If those conditions are met, the loan is forgiven.
A holistic approach to the eviction crisis requires financial stability for both renters and housing providers. Implementing this approach in New York City would likely combine Congressman Rush’s proposal to ensure that landlords can meet their financial obligations with direct relief to tenants through the state’s COVID Rent Relief Extension Program (with revised terms of eligibility; percentage of Area Median Income could be adjusted up). The city would have to prophylactically ensure that debts from rent shortfalls don’t accumulate to unwieldy levels with sustained direct assistance, supplemental to UI benefits. The city could retroactively pay a portion of missed rent for qualifying tenants to ease immediate deficits. The city could also extend the post-emergency eviction grace period and the life of HUD loans to 90 days to give tenants sufficient time to find steady employment and recoup COVID-related income losses.
New York City’s small landlords play a vital role in providing affordable housing, and many have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic’s economic effects. A comprehensive response to the eviction crisis must preserve this affordable housing stock and support small landlords by conducting proactive outreach to identify at-risk buildings and providing owners with technical assistance and flexible stabilizing funds. The Donovan administration will bolster initiatives like the Landlord Ambassador Program to help small landlords succeed.
Shaun knows firsthand the difference that strong and proactive federal relief can make. As HUD Secretary, he worked with other federal agencies during the Great Recession to return stability to the financial sector. The rental housing crisis requires a similar level of intervention, one that removes immediate burdens on tenants and small owners. Relief for rental housing providers must be rapid, transparent, and easy to access. GSEs should lead lenders in moving repayment of debt in forbearance to the back end of a loan, rather than requiring rental housing providers to begin repayment immediately. To avoid injecting a large amount of liquidity into the system, the city could also implement a rent relief tax credit for larger rental housing providers to offset income losses and forgive tenants’ missed rent.
To make rental assistance most sustainable in the long-term, the city has to tackle the issue from several sides: first, it has to dramatically expand its affordable and co-operative housing inventory and naturally lower rents by retrofitting empty commercial units (also a good opportunity to mobilize the Biden administration’s infrastructure funds for weatherization and solar-paneling); second, it has to guarantee competitive trials in housing court by automatically providing counsel for low-income tenants as a civil right; third, it has to seal eviction records to prevent chronic Scarlet “E” problems from following tenants (modeled after H.B. 6528, “An Act Concerning the Sealing of Eviction Records,” now being debated in the Connecticut state legislature); and fourth, it has to implement a robust city-wide rent burden and income survey campaign to assess the full extent of the housing crisis and adapt the moratorium accordingly.