State Lawmakers Near Deal On Long-Awaited Rent Relief Program

New York lawmakers are finalizing a program to distribute billions of dollars in emergency federal rent assistance to tenants and landlords impacted by the pandemic.

According to details of the deal shared with legislators over the weekend and reviewed by Gothamist, the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance would be tasked with sending out $2.35 billion in federal funding and $100 million in state aid earmarked for rental assistance.

The program is expected to be passed as part of a budget deal that was due April 1st, which Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators were still finalizing as of Monday. It comes at a time when as many as 1.2 million tenants across New York face the possibility of eviction. Both renters and landlords have expressed frustration that the state has not distributed any of the rent relief allocated in the last two rounds of federal stimulus packages, including the $1.3 billion sent to New York in December.

In its current form, pandemic-affected tenants who make 80% or less of an area’s median income — $81,920 for a family of three in New York City — would be eligible for up to 12 months of unpaid rent and utilities, and up to three months of future rental assistance. An additional $100 million in state money would be reserved for those who make between 80 and 120% of the median income and landlords whose tenants moved out during the pandemic.

The plan, which has not been finalized or formally made public, would make aid available to a wide range of tenants who fell behind on rent in the last year as a result of financial hardship. In a shift from the state’s previous rent relief program, which was widely criticized for stringent eligibility requirements that blocked access for many New Yorkers, renters would be permitted to “self-attest” to their hardship. Eligibility would also be extended to undocumented residents.

The deal would give priority to those with pending eviction cases, smaller landlords, households that make less than 50% of AMI, veterans, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, and tenants in mobile home parks.

Though both tenants and landlords can submit applications, the funding would be paid directly to landlords, who would be required to agree to a rent freeze and no fault eviction protections for one year after receiving the arrears payment.

News of the agreement on rent relief comes as lawmakers are reportedly finalizing other budget bills, including a tax hike on millionaires that would generate $4.3 billion a year for the state. The deal would also legalize mobile sports betting and create licenses for three full-scale casinos in the state, the NY Times reports. If enacted, New York would have the highest combined local tax rate on the wealthy in the U.S.

Inquiries to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie were not returned. A spokesperson for State Senator Brian Kavanagh, who sponsored a bill to establish the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, declined to comment.

Cea Weaver, an organizer for the tenants rights group Housing Justice for All, which backed a more expansive “Cancel Rent” platform, called the program a “pretty good Band-Aid.” But she raised concerns about implementation, and what might happen if a landlord attempts to take a tenant to court instead of accepting the aid.

Under language shared with lawmakers, the state would hold arrears in reserve if a landlord doesn’t cooperate, establishing a “presumption” against the landlord if they elect to take the tenant to housing court. That could put the fate of many tenants in the hands of judges, according to Weaver.

With New York’s eviction moratorium set to expire on May 1st, the state is now facing a high-stakes race to distribute the money, and to ensure that both tenants and landlords are aware of the program.

“Can a state agency stand up a $2.4 billion program before May 1st?” Weaver said. “I hope they can.”

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