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Ask Sam: How do I get help when New York passes the Emergency Rent Relief Act?

The new bill, which awaits Governor Cuomo's signature, would provide rent vouchers to landlords of qualified tenants impacted by the pandemic. 

Austin Havens-Bowen for Brick Underground/Flickr

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Question:

I’ve lost income because of Covid-19 and need help paying my rent. I heard that New York State is on the verge of passing a law for tenants like me. How do I take advantage of it?

Answer:

The New York State Assembly and Senate have passed the Emergency Rent Relief Act of 2020, which will create a $100 million fund to subsidize rents for New Yorkers who have lost income because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a compromise on what tenant advocates have been pushing for, which is a rent suspension bill,” says Sam Himmelstein, an attorney with the law firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. 

The legislation, which now awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approval, was written as a replacement for a more sweeping mortgage and rent cancellation bill. Under this new law, tenants who are rent-burdened, which means they’re spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and were earning less than 80 percent of the AMI (area median income) both before and after the pandemic are eligible for rent vouchers. 

These vouchers will be paid directly to tenants’ landlords, and will cover “the gap between [tenants’] pre-Covid rent burden and their new rent burden, up to 125 percent fair market rent.” The subsidy will only cover rent for April 1st through July 31st.

In order to get these subsidies, tenants will have to submit applications to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, and prove their eligibility with paperwork showing that they spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent, that they have lost income since March 7th, and that they were already low-income (that is, earning less than 80 pecent of the AMI) before the crisis. 

Ronald Languedoc, a partner with HMGDJ Law, provides the following example of how the subsidy would work for a family of two with an annual income of $60,000 and a rent of $1,800 a month (a rent burden of 36 percent). If one person lost their job and their household income was reduced from $60,000 to $36,000, their "rent burden" would be increased from 36 percent to 50 percent. The household would then be eligible for a rent subsidy equal to the 14 percent increase of their monthly rent burden—$252 per month, or $1,004 for the four-month period covered by the bill. 

Critics of the new legislation say that proving their eligibility will be a major challenge for many tenants.

“The problem with this is that it’s creating a whole new bureaucracy for tenants who have to submit applications and proof,” Himmelstein says. “And it’s going to be administered by the DHCR, which is already an overburdened agency.”

Another issue with the legislation is that it doesn’t cover tenants who may be withholding their rent for reasons other than lost income.

“What if the tenant has a defense for nonpayment of rent, like poor conditions in their apartment?” Himmelstein points out.

Tenant advocates say the legislation falls far short of what’s needed, given that one quarter of NYC’s renters did not pay any rent last month.

Himmelstein agrees. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s not what we in the tenant community want to see,” he says.

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Read all our Ask a Renters Rights Lawyer columns here.


Sam Himmelstein, Esq. represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts, and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.