NEW YORK, N.Y.—Saying stable housing is an essential part of preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, a coalition of some 50 health-care providers and organizations is calling on the state Legislature to ban evictions for the next year and cancel rent due during the epidemic.
“It is a public-health matter,” Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), an oncology nurse, said during an online press conference Aug. 18.
“One principle we cannot emphasize enough: safe and stable housing is essential to recovery from and prevention of COVID-19,” the group said in an Aug. 18 letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “Recommendations to self-isolate are effective only insofar as individuals and families have safe and stable shelters in which to isolate. Given that in June 2020 alone, approximately 25% of renters in New York City missed their monthly payment, it is clear that without a concerted effort to support those at risk of eviction, isolation at home or even basic social distancing would be impossible…. Opening housing courts to begin processing evictions is a recipe for disaster.”
The organizations signing the letter included the New York State Nurses Association, the New York Doctors Coalition, and the New York State Academy of Family Physicians, along with about 450 individuals.
The rent-relief package they are backing includes three bills. The Emergency Housing Stability and Displacement Prevention Act, sponsored by Reyes and state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) would ban both residential and commercial evictions for the next year. The second, sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan), would cancel all rent owed by residential tenants until 90 days after the state declares the crisis over. It would also establish a fund to compensate small landlords, cooperatives, affordable-housing providers, and public-housing authorities for lost income. The third would create a Section 8-style rent-voucher program to help homeless people afford apartments.
The state currently bans evictions of residential tenants. It expired on Aug. 6, but tate Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks issued a directive that prohibited courts from evicting residential tenants before Oct. 1. Proceedings can continue in eviction cases brought by landlords before the courts closed March 17, but only after a conference to cover COVID-19 issues, including whether the tenant’s loss of income protects them from eviction under the New York Tenant Safe Harbor Act.Housing activists say those measures don’t protect people from eventually having to pay months of back rent or be evicted, especially since the federal government cut off its $600-a-week supplement to unemployment benefits in July. And many workers were not eligible for unemployment, said Reyes.
The bills aren’t about “free rent,” said certified nursing assistant Winsome Pendergrass, a member of the Housing Justice for All coalition: “Hundreds of thousands of tenants have lost their jobs.”
Even before the epidemic hit, the city’s housing costs had stretched hundreds of thousands of people to their limit, including many low-wage health-care workers. Pendergrass says that when she moved into her Flatbush apartment, she didn’t know that the $1,200 she was paying was a “preferential rent,” which until 2019 could be raised to the legal limit when the lease expired. Four years later, she says, it had gone up to $2,100, and “three paychecks go straight to rent.” She took a second job on top of her evening-shift hospital work, but the stress was so much that she wound up collapsing in her kitchen from a mini-stroke.
Rosetta Johnson, a former home health aide, said she had to stop working after 20 years after she developed severe back problems and had to have both knees replaced. Last October, she had to leave her apartment because of a black-mold infestation, and wound up living in her car until a city program got her temporarily housed in a hotel room.
There is “ample data” that such unstable housing has negative health effects, said Dr. Oni Blackstock of the New York Doctors Coalition, a primary-care physician specializing in AIDS: Being evicted correlates with higher rates of hospitalizations, underweight babies, depression, and more.
New York now has the highest rate of homelessness ever for families with children, said Dr. Katie Keown, a pediatrician who works in homeless shelters, and those children are more likely to have developmental disabilities or chronic illnesses.
The Legislature is not currently in session, and the rent-relief package so far has only about 30 cosponsors, Reyes said. She expects it to return to consider measures addressing the state’s virus-induced fiscal crisis, and hopes more will sign on then.
Many lawmakers, she explains, were waiting to see what kind of aid the federal government was going to enact, but “we realized in the past couple weeks that’s not going to happen.”
Speaker Heastie has been supportive, she adds, but some legislators have concerns about small landlords, such as owners of two-family houses, who need rental income to pay their mortgages. That’s why the bills can’t be passed “piecemeal,” she adds; the Salazar-Niou bill, which would aid such landlords, is an essential part of the package.
Still, she says, “it is a very heavy lift.”