(CN) — New Yorkers will be protected from evictions and foreclosures during the winter months ahead, thanks to a measure the state Legislature passed on Monday to curb homelessness while the Covid-19 pandemic persists.
During a five-hour New York State Assembly hearing Monday, called into session during the ordinarily quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, legislators touched on structural racism, homelessness and the divide between upstate and downstate trends during the pandemic.
Ultimately, the Assembly voted 99-47 to pass the COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020 on Monday, protecting tenants, homeowners, and landlords who own fewer than 10 buildings.
Though several legislators said they feared the eviction stay would just “kick the can down the road,” allowing rent or mortgage debt to accumulate in the meantime, others noted that keeping people in their homes is paramount as a measure to protect public health.
Preventing evictions right now is also a basic humanitarian protection, some argued. Assemblymember Demond Meeks, a Democrat representing the 137th District, described watching a mother and her children get evicted during 19-degree weather in Rochester, New York.
To benefit from the protection, tenants need to sign a hardship declaration form identifying one of five pandemic-related reasons for not being able to pay rent: loss of income; increased out-of-pocket expenses related to performing essential work or health impacts; care for children or an elderly, disabled or sick family member; moving expenses; or other circumstances.
The form does not require proof for either tenants or landlords facing financial hardships, but is self-certifying, explained the bill’s sponsor Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democratic assemblymember from the 81st District in the Bronx.
“It’s on the penalty of perjury, essentially,” Dinowitz said Monday. “If you file this form but it’s not truthful, then you are subject to prosecution. I can’t imagine there will be a whole lot of people who are going to do that under those circumstances, unless you think the worst of everybody.”
Some speakers, including Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat representing the 141st District, said that while they support the measures, landlords must also be made whole.
“When we insist that there be a public service to protect people’s health, we have to pay for it,” Peoples-Stokes said.
“There’s not another public service we have that taxpayer dollars don’t pay for,” she added, citing examples like education and environmental protection.
Still, she said “there is no more important thing that we can do on this day than protect people from having to be homeless in three days.”
The assembly voted largely across party lines, with multiple Republican members holding that the measure did not do enough to protect landlords, especially those who own more than 10 properties.
Others who voted against the bill suggested that without the threat of eviction, tenants will try to game the system.
Assemblymember Brian Manktelow, a Republican who represents the 130th District, said preventing evictions in practice lets people stop paying rent and that he already sees people taking advantage of protections.
“The tenants are getting their money,” Manktelow said. “They’re eating out more often, they’re going places to buy large televisions, new cars, socializing. That’s part of the reason why there’s this spread.”
Dinowitz disagreed with such claims.
“If you think people have money because they’re not paying rent, and they’re living high on the hog, buying TVs and all kinds of other stuff that you mention, I seriously think you’re incorrect,” he said.
Saying he didn’t believe that was a widespread issue, Dinowitz asked Manktelow whether he believed his constituents have “very low character.”
“Some of them, I believe, is the case, yes,” Manktelow replied.
Later, Democrat Charles Barron, who represents the 60th District in Brooklyn, addressed racism and called speeches such as Manktelow’s euphemistic.
“This is also about not saying coded things about a small minority of people that might try to get over on the system,” Barron said.
“Racism comes in very different packages,” he added. “Some is very blatant, and some gets disguised and is difficult for some people to detect. But they are in denial.”
Interrupting Barron, Assembly Minority Leader Pro Tempore Andrew Goodell, a Republican from the 150th district, asked that Barron refrain from calling other assemblymembers racist.
“If the shoe fits, wear it,” Barron replied.
Dinowitz also said that in his experience, between landlords and tenants, it isn’t typically people on the brink of eviction that are the ones taking advantage of policies.
“Tenants are not gaming the system,” Dinowitz said. “They’re desperate.”
Dinowitz and others who co-sponsored or supported the eviction moratorium said that now that President Donald Trump has signed the federal Covid-19 relief bill, New York will receive more than $1 billion in relief, which can be used to further help small landlords and provide general revenue relief.
“We must prevent the people of New York from being thrown out on the streets in the cold weather during the pandemic, being made homeless, or being forced into shelters” Dinowitz said. “We don’t want to make the spread of this virus even easier than it’s already been.”
Dinowitz said he was disappointed that the bill lacked bipartisan support, because “every single one of us” represents both tenants and small landlords.
“We all want to help small landlords,” he said. “But we should all want to help the tenants — these are people who are our constituents.”
Linda B. Rosenthal, a Democrat from the 67th, expressed a similar sentiment.
“What I have heard is a rallying cry for eviction,” Rosenthal said. “Who wins when tenants are vilified?”
Housing in New York is a crisis, Rosenthal said, and blame should not fall to those struggling to pay rent.
“This scenario has been lopsided for years,” she said. “And it’s not the tenants who should be blamed here.”
Rosenthal rebuked bipartisanship and said the state should be working to ensure the federal government helps to furnish rent for those who cannot afford it.
“That is our job: To protect the public health, to make sure that people in our state can live, can eat, can prosper,” Rosenthal said. “And hopefully, that no one else dies during this Covid pandemic.”