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NY lawmakers approve sweeping anti-eviction bill amid COVID-19 spike

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the Red Room at the State Capitol in Albany on Dec. 14. Credit: Office of the Governor / Don Pollard

ALBANY — New York legislators approved a sweeping anti-eviction bill on Monday, calling it one of the nation’s most comprehensive measures to prevent people from being removed from their homes during the pandemic.

The Democratic-led State Senate passed the measure, 40-21, along party lines. The Democratic-controlled Assembly followed suit, 99-47, also largely along party lines.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on his website Monday night that he had signed the legislation into law.

Lawmakers said the bill, dubbed the "COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act," goes beyond Cuomo’s executive order, which had placed a moratorium on most evictions through Dec. 31.

Among its key provisions, any eviction proceeding already underway will be stayed for another 60 days.

In addition, tenants would be able to submit forms attesting they are unable to pay rent because of a financial hardship caused by the pandemic — because of unemployment, lost income or increased expenses. Once filed, such claims effectively can't be challenged until May 1.

The bill also would make it harder for lenders to foreclose on small landlords — 10 rental units or fewer — or slap liens on their property for lack of payments. Like tenants, such landlords would be able to make financial hardship claims to stave off seizures.

On Long Island, the legislation would impact thousands of households. In Nassau County, there are about 86,000 rental units; an estimated 17,000 of those were are behind on rent, according to Census figures provided by state legislative officials. Suffolk County has about 95,000 units, of which an estimated 19,000 were behind on rent.

"What this bill does is give us a four-month timeout for people to get back on their feet or four months for the federal government" to provide tenants more aid, Sen. Peter Harckham (D-South Salem) said.

Even with the governor’s moratorium, eviction proceedings can still proceed in courts and some tenants have been removed if they can’t prove financial hardship, legislators said. The new law puts all that to a halt, lawmakers said.

"Evictions have resumed," Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) said, "and that will accelerate" across the state if lawmakers didn’t act. He said the bill will be "more effective" than a governor’s executive order.

The measure doesn't apply to commercial tenants, Assembly officials said.

Republicans generally opposed the legislation, saying it was filled with loopholes. Among them, virtually no proof would be required to claim financial hardship. Further, landlords would have no avenue to contest such claims until May 1, they noted. And they said New York should tap into the $1.3 billion Congress recently approved to help struggling tenants and landlords before expanding on Cuomo’s moratorium.

Sen. Pamela Helming (R-Canandaigua) said the bill was so "flawed" and broad that some tenants could use the system to avoid paying rent "for years." She said it kicks the problem into the future and will trigger an increase in liens and foreclosures eventually.

Helming tried to attach an amendment to the legislation, placing income limits on who could claim financial hardships and allowing eviction proceedings to continue in court even if no actual evictions are executed.

It was defeated along party lines.

An influential landlords’ group also criticized the legislation.

"With no requirement of proof that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected their income, and no income limitation to qualify for eviction protection, a tenant whose household income went from a half-million dollars to $250,000 would qualify for eviction protection by declaring that their income has been ‘significantly reduced,’ " said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 owners of the 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in New York City.

Kavanagh defended the provision blocking landlords from challenging hardship claims until May 1, saying there was no "reasonable and safe" way to set up such a process currently.

The Democrat didn’t dispute Republicans’ criticism that tenants would merely have to claim hardship without providing documentation for now, but said a tenant making claims later proved false could face criminal penalties. He also said tenants could be evicted for reasons not related to the pandemic, such as damaging a dwelling.

Cuomo, a Democrat, supported the Assembly/Senate initiative.

"We want to get to May 1 and we’ll see what happens by May but we want to protect tenants," Cuomo said at a coronavirus briefing a few hours before the Legislature voted. "We want to make it simple. We don't want people evicted. We don't want them to have to go to court to fight the eviction. But we want to make sure they're not committing fraud either, so they will make representations that will be legally enforceable."

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