REAL ESTATE

Assembly Members Call on Heastie to Increase Rent Relief

Manhattan Assembly member Yuh-line Niou with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. (Getty, Niou For New York)

 

Lawmakers want Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to fight for automatic rent debt forgiveness and more money for rent relief in the state’s 2021 budget.

In a Feb. 11 letter, more than 30 Assembly members called on Heastie to push for the inclusion of $2.25 billion in rent relief in the 2021 state budget — a figure that includes already committed federal dollars and would require more funding from the state.

At the moment, the state is working out how to dispense $1.3 billion in federal rent relief. A recently amended bill lays out the framework, which would require tenants to apply for relief and demonstrate financial hardship.

The legislators who signed the letter, along with housing advocates, favor a different method of distributing aid: a program where tenant debt is automatically forgiven, and landlords must apply to the state for relief. The letter points to a measure proposed by Manhattan Assembly member Yuh-line Niou last July, which would cancel rent obligations and create a relief fund for struggling landlords. The letter asserts that lawmakers need to prioritize “rent-forgiveness for tenants, and providing much-needed relief to our mom-and-pop landlords — not bailing out Blackstone.”

“A landlord-hardship fund can ensure that mom-and-pop landlords and not-for-profit housing providers are prioritized for aid,” the letter states. “If we pursue a landlord-based approach, we will be able to assess which landlords must urgently be bailed out, and which companies have the reserves to weather the storm.”

A spokesperson for Heastie said the Speaker is reviewing the governor’s executive budget and plans to release the Assembly’s proposal next month.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance is working with the state legislature as it awaits federal guidance on disbursing the $1.3 billion in aid, according to a spokesperson for the office.

“The aim is to craft a program that will support households experiencing financial hardship and are in rental arrears or are at risk of housing insecurity, with a priority given to the lowest-income households and individuals who are unemployed,” the spokesperson said.

The letter coincides with a broader push by housing advocates and lawmakers to cancel rent obligations and tax the state’s wealthiest to raise revenue. Sen. Michael Gianaris sent a similar letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January, calling for the inclusion of more than $2 billion for rent relief in the budget.

Though the proposal has allies in both chambers, including it in the budget may be an uphill battle for lawmakers. Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins would need to back the change — and would need to convince Cuomo, who has not been supportive of the “cancel rent” campaign.

Budget negotiations will likely be even more tense this year, given the governor’s increasingly fraught relationship with legislators. Senate Democrats are moving to remove Cuomo’s emergency powers that were granted during the pandemic amid allegations that he intentionally withheld data on deaths in state nursing homes.

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, issued a statement Thursday calling for the rent relief program to be divorced from the budget process. He said the governor and legislature should pass a separate appropriation.

“They can avoid delays in delivering desperately needed help to millions of struggling New Yorkers so they can pay their rent and landlords can pay their property taxes and repair and maintain their buildings for the safety and comfort of their tenants,” he said.

Cea Weaver of the Housing Justice for All coalition, which headed up the “cancel rent” campaign, said the Senate and Assembly leaders will likely be open to trying out a different rent relief method, given the trajectory of the state’s previous program. The state has still not distributed $60 million remaining from the $100 million set aside.

“I’m confident that they are comfortable doing something completely different,” she said.

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