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State Legislature approves rent voucher program amid pandemic

A view of a poster saying Cancel Rent

A view of a poster saying Cancel Rent Cancel Mortgage during the coronavirus pandemic on May 18 in Brooklyn Borough of New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 316,000 lives with over 4.8 million infections reported. House just passed $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan. Credit: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

ALBANY — Despite a Democratic rift, the State Legislature on Thursday approved a bill to set aside some of New York’s federal aid to provide vouchers to help tenants pay rent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The measure will earmark some $100 million to help New Yorkers, who meet rent and income qualifications, to pay part of their rent bills going back to April.

It is the Democratic-controlled legislature’s response to a campaign by progressives to “cancel rent” or stage rent strikes.

It came after the bill was temporarily stalled in the committee process in the state Assembly as some Democrats denounced it as a “subsidy for landlords.”

“This bill bails out landlords,” not tenants, Assemb. Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) said during a spirited debate largely conducted remotely.

Assemb. Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) said the Housing Committee meeting was canceled when it was apparent the bill would be defeated, and the bill was shifted to the Ways and Means Committee, which approved it.

Supporters said canceling rent would trigger a cascading effect in which building owners couldn’t collect rent, school districts and local governments couldn’t collect taxes and schools faced shortfalls.

“‘Cancel rent’ is a failing strategy because ‘cancel rent’ is a domino effect,” Assemb. Diana Richardson (D-Brooklyn) said — a view Republicans shared, in a way.

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“This is win-win. Tenants win because they will have vouchers to pay landlords,” Assemb. Mark Johns (R-Webster) said. “Landlords win because they will have money to pay their mortgages. Banks are going to win because the mortgages will be paid.”

Several Democrats said the bill didn’t go far enough but would be a big help to many renters.

“We will fight for more but … this legislation will start the flow of resources from the state” to renters, Assemb. Steve Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn) said.

Once it came to casting a vote, almost all legislators laid aside their objections and the Assembly approved the bill, 132-11. 

There was no such ruckus in the Democratic-led Senate, where the bill passed 60-1.

An aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the legislation is under review.

To qualify for the program, rent would have to consume more than 30% of a household’s income and that income couldn’t be more than 80% of an area’s median income as of March 7.

The rent voucher bill was one of more than 30 pieces of legislation lawmakers approved during their first activity at the Capitol in nearly eight weeks. They had adjourned April 3, after enacting the $178 billion state budget, and it hadn’t been clear if they would return to the State Capitol this year because of the pandemic.

Other measures approved Thursday included:

  • Extending loan periods for mortgages.
  • Expanding the use of absentee ballots through the November election.
  • And suspending the state’s ability to collect penalties from people who have received inappropriate or unwarranted unemployment benefits.

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