Elected officials' efforts to shore up tenant protections have taken on new urgency now that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the state's eviction moratorium, a key Albany legislator said.
The court ruled Thursday that tenants can no longer prevent eviction lawsuits or freeze ongoing cases just by filing out a form declaring they've faced economic hardship due to the pandemic. Relying on only the renters' word is problematic, the court opinion said.
Those who can provide evidence of their financial setback in court will still benefit from protections put in place during the pandemic. But State Senate Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee Chairman Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) said the moratorium must be bolstered and extended past Aug. 31 because the state hasn't distributed the bulk of rent relief funds.
"We had already been having an active conversation about whether to extend the moratorium," said Kavanagh, adding that, at a minimum, the policy needs to be updated so it's consistent with the court's ruling. The discussion has "been made more urgent," he said.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is slated to succeed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo following his resignation, said on Twitter that she will work to "strengthen the eviction moratorium."
Several other measures offer tenants degrees of protection at least for the near term. Under state law, renters who convince a judge they didn't pay rent because of a COVID-related hardship may not be evicted until all restrictions related to the pandemic are lifted, according to Marissa Luchs Kindler, supervising attorney of the housing unit at Nassau Suffolk Law Services, a nonprofit representing people in need.
The federal government has instituted an eviction moratorium for those living in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates — which currently includes Long Island — through Oct. 3.
These measures don't forgive rent payments, which landlords may attempt to recoup through civil cases. But the government is trying to help tenants cover their debt by issuing rent relief to property owners.
Tenants who apply for $2.4 billion in rental assistance through the state will have their eviction cases delayed while their paperwork is pending. New York has so far sent out about $100 million — or less than 5% of the funding, state officials said earlier this week.
This protection, however, is not necessarily extended to those applying for federal rent relief in localities that chose to run their own programs, Kavanagh said. Two local governments distributing their own funds — the towns of Oyster Bay and Hempstead — did not respond to questions about protections for applicants. Tenants requesting assistance from The Town of Islip will have their cases frozen while their paperwork is pending, a town spokesperson said.
Landlords will now be able to start filing eviction cases and challenging tenants' claims of hardship in court, said Bradley Schnur, a Jericho-based attorney who represents property owners and renters.
The state moratorium had instructed courts to deny lawsuits when tenants named in eviction cases submitted forms declaring they'd suffered economically. Even when judges allowed owners to argue against these claims, landlords didn't have access to the bank statements, pay stubs and other documents needed to disprove tenants' assertions, Schnurs said.
"[The decision] shifts the burden of proving this hardship to the tenant," Schnur said, adding the decision, "at least, allows the case to get into the system, which will help open up some other opportunities for in court settlements, mediation."
Relatively few landlords have been filing eviction lawsuits during the pandemic. Excluding village and town jurisdictions, courts on the Island have fielded 2,348 commercial and residential eviction cases so far in 2021, compared with 6,417 in 2020 and 14,348 in 2019, according to the state Office of Court Administration.
Holding off on court proceedings by extending the moratorium may ultimately make everyone's lives simpler, Kindler said.
Without the moratorium, "landlords will start moving forward with evictions," she said. "Then they'll get the [rent relief] money, and then tenants will have to run back to court to get the eviction vacated."