NY Senator Floats Temporary COVID-19 Rental Vouchers

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (April 6, 2020, 6:02 PM EDT) -- In late March, as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seemed to shoot down the idea of rent cancellation for tenants out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, state Sen. Brian Kavanagh introduced a new proposal for tenant relief. 

The bill would provide temporary COVID-19 rental vouchers to New Yorkers through a COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Bill S8140A says vouchers would be issued to qualifying households for 90 days, closing the gap between the total rent and 30 percent of the household's adjusted income.

The Kavanagh bill also includes adjustments for dependents and elderly or disabled family members, as well as child care and medical expenses. It has 19 co-sponsors, as of this writing.

"I think that vouchers are a tried-and-true method of giving rental relief to people who can't afford their rent and might otherwise face housing insecurity," Kavanagh told Law360 on Friday.

Much of the funding for this voucher program would have to come from the federal government, according to Kavanagh, because "obviously the state budget is in really tough shape."

"Everybody I talk to expects there will be additional federal relief bills," Kavanagh added. "And we want to emphasize that covering peoples' rent is really critical as far as the federal relief that we need."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Michael Gianaris tells Law360 that he plans to continue to prioritize his popular bill to waive rent and mortgage payments and will urge Cuomo to invoke executive powers.

"At this point, the most effective path is an executive order so I'm going to redouble my efforts on that," he told Law360 on Friday.

But Gianaris did not rule out the possibility of shifting attention to another rent-reduction bill if rent cancellation seems futile.

Gianaris' Senate Bill S8139, introduced March 29, says that qualifying residential and commercial tenants would pay "up to 30 percent of their current income or their contractual rent, whichever is less."

A tenant would have to supply his or her landlord with a written and signed statement confirming her "aggregate actual income." The bill would also create a "COVID-19 Rental Assistance Fund" for landlords, to be managed by state agencies.

"That was submitted in an effort to provide an option for the [state] budget" finalized last week, Gianaris told Law360 on Friday. "I'm really not focusing on that. I'd rather have rent cancellation."

Kavanagh's voucher proposal drew early interest from the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association for New York City landlords.

"The reason we can support it in principle is because it provides a mechanism for the tenants to pay the rent as opposed to canceling that rent and not filling the gap there," Joseph M. Condon, CHIP's chief counsel, told Law360 on Monday.

Like Gianaris, Kavanagh said he'd be pleased to see Cuomo act on his proposal through executive powers.

"The governor has an ability to take steps necessary through executive orders," Kavanagh said. "If [my bill] ended up being a model for that kind of approach, that wouldn't be the worst outcome either."

Reached for comment on the two rent-reduction bills, Cuomo spokesperson Jason Conwall directed Law360 to remarks the governor made at a press conference last week. A reporter had asked the governor what will happen to tenants after the governor's 90-day eviction moratorium lifts.

"So much of this is changing and fluid," Cuomo replied. "I don't think anyone can sit here and tell you what the right plan is.... I just want to get to 90 days from now. And get there healthy. And then we'll handle whatever we have to handle."

Blair Horner, director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, notes that Cuomo is particularly powerful this session, thanks to legislation passed last month expanding his powers to enact "any directive necessary to respond to a state disaster emergency" through April 2021.

Still, the legislature has remote-voting capabilities, and is currently calendared to return from recess on April 20. "They consciously passed legislation that cedes tremendous power to the governor," Horner told Law360 on Monday. "But that doesn't mean they shouldn't come back."

A report out Monday from the Community Service Society on New York City housing and COVID-19 estimates that at least 126,000 low and moderate income renters in the city lost much or all of their income in March. 

"For legislation to successfully meet the dire needs of New Yorkers unable to make the rent this spring, it needs to be … prescriptive about mechanisms for establishing need, clear about who is included and who is excluded, and include a strong oversight mechanism," the report states.  

Cea Weaver, lead organizer with the statewide tenant coalition Housing Justice for All, told Law360 on Thursday that she's wary of rent-relief proposals like Kavanagh's that put onus on tenants to prove their income eligibility.

"To me, tenants having to implement any of this themselves is scary," she said.

The alliance will continue to pressure Cuomo to use his emergency powers to waive all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the epidemic, Weaver said.

"The bill to cancel the rent was always an organizing tool for the tenant movement, and we were never counting on [a] bill for giving us the rent relief that we need," Weaver said. "We always thought that the governor needed to do it through executive action, and we thought and hoped the legislature would be a partner in that. And we hope that can still be true after the budget."

--Editing by Michael Watanabe. 

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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