New York State lawmakers are expected to reconvene in-person in Albany for a rare special session Wednesday to extend the eviction moratorium through next January, while Governor Kathy Hochul attempts to speed up payment of more than $2 billion in federal rent relief funds to tenants in need.
Hochul was expected to request lawmakers return to Albany, according to several legislative sources who weren’t authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly. Hochul’s office did not comment immediately. A spokesperson for the state assembly said the talks were ongoing.
There are other pressing but thorny issues Hochul had said she wanted to address with the legislature, like requiring teachers be vaccinated for COVID-19, though it’s not clear if lawmakers will be considering issues beyond eviction protections during their special session. State lawmakers are typically in session between January and June.
The development comes as protections for tenants in New York were eroded by two back-to-back U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent weeks.
On August 12th the Supreme Court partially blocked New York’s own eviction moratorium, granting landlords who sued an injunction. The piece of the moratorium deemed potentially problematic by the court was that tenants were allowed to fill out a Hardship Declaration that protected them from eviction without the vetting of a court. Any subsequent extension of the moratorium would have to address that issue.
A subsequent decision came down last week, striking down the federal eviction moratorium, saying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had overstepped its authority by extending it, and any further moratoria had to be legislated by Congress.
There are currently around 225,000 eviction cases pending across the state, according to Right to Counsel, a tenant advocacy group. Eviction cases are expected to drag on for months once proceedings begin moving in earnest. Experts say the most vulnerable tenants are around 14,000 households where eviction orders were approved before the pandemic, though those families would typically be granted another hearing before any new eviction warrant was issued.
Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a group that represents landlords and was one of the parties that sued over New York’s moratorium, slammed the state’s plan to once again extend a halt on evictions, which has been in place since the start of the pandemic.
“Financially desperate tenants and landlords don’t need a special legislative session, they need Albany to get the billions of dollars from the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program out the door,” he said. “If New York State lawmakers enact legislation that disregards and attempts to circumvent the decision by SCOTUS, we will immediately take legal action, this time asking for damages.”
While the fate of the state’s eviction moratorium is up in the air, New York tenants have been anxiously awaiting federal relief dollars allotted in the state budget four months ago. Under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York had the slowest start to the program out of any state in the country, according to a report from the State Comptroller, though it’s since caught up with other states.
Petra Benjamin, 46, said since she applied for rental assistance months ago. Since then she said she’s been “waiting, hoping, praying.” Benjamin lost her work as a babysitter and caregiver for an elderly woman at the start of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to pay rent since spring of 2020.
“It’s just a waiting game… a frustrating game,” she said. “You base your hope on something and then nothing pays out. What are you going to do?”
Through August 23rd, the state had paid back-rent owed to landlords on behalf of 15,548 households amounting to around $200 million of $2.7 billion in funds allotted towards the program, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is administering it. Another $600 million for 30,000 tenants had been approved but hadn’t yet been disbursed yet.
Overall just 176,000 households had applied for the program, though an estimated 700,000 New York tenants are behind on $2.2 billion in rent payments according to the National Equity Atlas. Three quarters of those New Yorkers are people of color.
When Hochul took over as governor on August 24th, she promised to cut the bureaucratic red-tape for the rent relief program and the excluded workers fund, hire more people to vet applications, and appoint a team to determine why the rollout of the program had been so slow.
New York legislative sources said lawmakers planned to rewrite the moratorium to include more recourse for landlords to challenge their tenants’ claims of financial hardship, in order to avoid the issue raised by the Supreme Court’s injunction.
Tenant advocates like Cea Weaver, with Housing Justice For All, point to New York’s still high unemployment rate at around 7 percent as well as the uptick in COVID-19 cases tied to the new, more infectious delta variant, as reasons for why the state should extend the moratorium. Several studies suggested that eviction moratoria correlated with significantly fewer deaths from COVID-19.
“Evictions will happen,” Weaver said, adding before the pandemic about 100 New Yorkers were evicted a day. “Evictions are a cruel and violent and real part of our society.”
Thirteen members of New York’s Congressional delegation implored Hochul to come up with a legislative solution to extend the state’s eviction moratorium.