April 1, 2020

Renters, and Landlords, Need a Rent Freeze

It’s April 1, and many in NYC have called for a rent freeze, to no avail. Although there is an eviction moratorium in place that will keep renters from being evicted for at least 90 days, it will not address the mounting debt many will face as their rent costs continue to grow.

Let’s say you are a low-wage worker recently laid off from your restaurant job – your sole source of income – and you pay $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment. Your landlord still expects to collect rent today from you and neighbors, and put it toward their monthly mortgage payment. If, as predicted, New York State’s PAUSE response to coronavirus continues, you may not be able to return to work for months. Even if you receive Federal stimulus monies and unemployment, it will not be enough to cover your barebones expenses. Arrears will accrue. At the end of the eviction moratorium, you could owe as much as $4,500 in back rent. And, that’s just for rent.

NYC shelters are filled with 60,000 people, including 22,000 children, who landed there because they could not afford to pay their rent. The shelter system is filled beyond capacity on a good day, and in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s extraordinarily overwhelmed. Are we ready to add a tidal wave of New Yorkers to that system once the eviction moratorium ends?

Some officials are recognizing that the eviction moratorium imposed a couple of weeks ago cannot stand alone. Mayor Bill De Blasio is backing a rent freeze for rent-controlled units, which includes 2.1 million renters in NYC. Borough Presidents Eric Adams (Brooklyn) and Gale Brewer (Manhattan) have proposed letting renters use their security deposits to cover April’s rent. It’s a stopgap idea (what happens on May 1?), but it’s offered in recognition that renters, and their landlords, need more help.

Many others are taking the argument for a rent-freeze to the capital, in light of Governor Cuomo’s opposition. He thinks the eviction moratorium is a good enough solve for the moment. NY State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, showing that he knows different, has introduced a rent-freeze bill that seems to be gaining support. Groups like Housing Justice for All, a coalition of New York State housing and homelessness advocates, are sending the message loud and clear to the Governor and members of the state legislature ahead of the budget vote later today.

Something must be done to protect tenants, so many of whom have been let go from their jobs without a viable path toward future earnings. About two-thirds of New Yorkers, or 5.4 million people, rent their homes, and it’s been estimated that close to 40% may not be able to pay April’s rent. The dominos are set to fall: landlords, many of whom are operating on thin margins, depend on rental income to cover their own expenses, including an upcoming property tax bill due on July 1. If the City loses big on property tax revenue, which funds one-third of all basic services, we all lose big. We’re all feeling the fragility of this moment, and it’s chilling to think that, in the face of these dominoes crashing around us, our state and local governments are not acting more forcefully around this critical issue.