Cuomo Signs Partial Eviction Moratorium Bill

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (June 30, 2020, 8:33 PM EDT) -- New York legislation signed Tuesday night by Gov. Andrew Cuomo extends the protections of an eviction moratorium for some tenants, the latest twist in the gradual reopening of New York's housing courts.

Sponsored by State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Greenwich Village, and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Kingsbridge, S. 8192B prohibits evicting tenants for unpaid rent accrued between March 7 and the complete reopening of their area, so long as a tenant can prove in court that they experienced financial hardship during that period. A judge can still issue a money judgment against the tenant, though.

"We're not saying that people will never have to pay rent," Dinowitz said during a Monday press conference over Zoom. "That's not what this bill is about. We're saying that people will never be evicted for rent accrued during the crisis."

The so-called Tenant Safe Harbor Act passed the Senate and Assembly on May 27. Cuomo signed it into law Tuesday. His office did not immediately comment.

The act has a longer arm than Cuomo's modified eviction moratorium, which includes a similar financial hardship requirement but is set to expire Aug. 20.

But the legislation has drawn fire from some tenant activists, who say it doesn't go far enough.

"It's not an eviction moratorium bill, it's a tenant debt collection bill," said Cea Weaver, organizer with the statewide tenant coalition Housing Justice for All. "We don't want tenants to be liable for monetary judgments."

Under the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, a qualifying renter can never be evicted for the nonpayment of rent accrued during the pandemic — a provision sponsors say they're particularly proud of. But rent owed after the state reopens is still fair game.

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, acknowledged this. The Legal Aid Society supports the bill and co-hosted Monday's press conference with the sponsors.

"The hope is by the end of the state of emergency you will have your job back," Goldiner told Law360. "If you do not have your job back by then, you will need more assistance, and we hope by then assistance from the state and Washington will be coming through."

Specifically, Goldiner referenced the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, a long-shot proposal by House Democrats that includes $100 billion in emergency rental assistance. At the state level, new emergency rent relief legislation would provide $100 million in vouchers to a small category of rent-burdened tenants in New York.

"We're poised to get a tranche of funding which will not be enough, but is a start," Hoylman said Monday.

An estimated 1.15 million New York State renter households have at least one member who lost their job due to the coronavirus, according to a recent NYU Furman Center analysis. Of those, 227,000 were spending more than half of their income on rent before the pandemic.

Patrick Tyrrell, a staff attorney for Mobilization for Justice, predicted that tenants may have an easier time proving financial hardship during the COVID-19 period — as specified in the Tenant Safe Harbor Act — than hardship specifically caused by the virus, which Cuomo's moratorium requires.

But he is concerned about the money judgment aspect of the bill, which "can ruin someone's credit." Also, the bill does not address holdover cases — a broad category of eviction cases that can be brought for alleged nuisances, when a tenant violates their lease, or if the lease expires.

Michael Rosenthal, partner at Hertz Cherson & Rosenthal PC and president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, described the Tenant Safe Harbor Act as a mixed bag for landlords.

"Am I happy with no possessory judgments?" he said. "No, I'm not at all."

But Rosenthal also described the bill as "more fair" than Cuomo's eviction moratorium, which prohibits eviction of anyone on state or federal assistance — regardless of their financial situation before the pandemic.

Recent guidance from New York's Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks stayed all new eviction cases for the near term, at least through July 6. Asked Monday if the Tenant Safe Harbor Act could prompt new court guidance, court spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said it's "too early to tell."

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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

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