Council Committees Consider Two COVID-19 Tenant Protection Bills

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Council Member Robert Cornegy, and Council Member Andrew Cohen at the April 28th Committee public hearing held through Zoom./Image Credit: City Council

Testimonies at the public hearing revealed concerns about the two bills and their impact on the City’s tenants and landlords. On April 28, 2020, the City Council Committee on Housing and Buildings, and Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing held a joint public hearing on two bills that will provide protection to residential and commercial tenants who are financially impacted by COVID-19. Introduction 1912, sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, will prohibit court marshals and sheriffs from enforcing evictions and collecting debt for one month after the federal and state moratoriums on evictions are lifted. Introduction 1936, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, will make it illegal to harass a tenant based on how they were impacted by COVID-19. The bills were proposed to provide financial relief to tenants who have faced COVID-19 related economic losses and to prevent an increase of homelessness and displacement after eviction moratoriums are lifted.

Legislative Intent

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the loss of income for many New Yorkers. According to the Committee Report, there are about 1,405,000 wage earners in the City who are at risk of income loss due to COVID-19 layoffs and workplace closures and there were about 144,000 unemployment claims filed during the week of March 22, 2020. As a result, some tenants who are physically or financially impacted by COVID-19 are being harassed by landlords for payments. According to a spokesperson at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, there have been 44 tenant harassment cases based on one’s COVID-19 status.

In response, the federal and state governments passed moratoriums to suspend evictions during the pandemic. Although the moratoriums provide relief from evictions during the pandemic, they do not guarantee that tenants will not be evicted immediately after the moratoriums have ended and do not provide tenants with relief for paying back rent owed during the suspension period. The moratoriums also do not protect tenants from landlord harassment.

Introduction 1912 was proposed to protect residential and commercial tenants from being evicted immediately after the moratoriums have been lifted. The bill was also proposed to provide tenants with additional time to figure out finances and work with landlords on paying back rent. Introduction 1936 was proposed to protect tenants who have been impacted by COVID-19 from harassment by landlords.

Introduction 1912

Under Introduction 1912, court marshals and sheriffs must suspend enforcement of evictions and debt collection from individuals and businesses for one month after the state and federal moratoriums are lifted. Collection of debt owed in a Family Court judgment and any action that is part of a Governor’s or Mayor’s emergency order, such as a taking of a building for use as a hospital, are not suspended under the bill.

Evictions and debt collections will be suspended for an additional six months for individuals and businesses who have suffered a substantial loss of income resulting from COVID-19. The additional six-month suspension would allow individuals and businesses who have faced a substantial loss of income more time to pay back rent and debts owed. A Council spokesperson told CityLand that under the bill as currently drafted, the individual or business will need to show proof to the court ordering the eviction or debt collection that they suffered a substantial loss of income because of COVID-19. Decisions to grant the additional six-month suspension would be at the discretion of the court.

Once enacted, the bill will immediately take effect.

Introduction 1936

Under Introduction 1936, it would be illegal under the City’s Housing Maintenance Code for landlords to harass tenants based on their COVID-19 status, their status as an essential worker, or if the tenant received rent relief during the pandemic. The bill will allow tenants to bring the harassment claim to housing court and if the landlord is in violation, they face a fine of $2,000 to $10,000. Once enacted, the bill will immediately take effect.

April 28th Committee Public Hearing

At the April 28th public hearing on the bills, Committee Chairs, Council Members Robert Cornegy and Andrew Cohen, invited representatives from the City and tenant advocacy groups to testify on the two bills and provide feedback on its impacts on the City. There were three main concerns with Introduction 1912.

The first concern was that suspending evictions and debt collections was not enough to provide relief for tenants. Michael McKee, a tenant organizer, stated that back rent should be canceled due to loss of income and the City should work with the federal and state governments to cover for the deficit caused by the lack of rent payments.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson stated that canceling rent would be difficult for the City because income from rent is used to pay property taxes, which makes up a significant part of the City budget. He noted that the decision to completely cancel rent will depend on the amount of financial support given by the state and federal governments.

Council Member Keith Powers suggested alternatives to rent cancellation such as using security deposits to cover rent owed or allowing part of the rent to be paid. Council Member Peter Koo asked if the federal stimulus checks or the state unemployment stipends would be enough to pay back rent. Barika Williams, Executive Director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, noted that not every New Yorker, such as those who are undocumented, qualifies for stimulus checks or unemployment stipends.

The second concern is that pausing rent and debt collection means that landlords, especially small property owners and non-profits, will not be able to earn an income. Barika Williams, was concerned that the lack of rent will burden non-profit property owners who depend on rent payments to maintain their building and run services. Council Member Margaret Chin raised concerns about small property owners and their ability to pay property taxes without tenants paying rent.

The third concern is that Introduction 1912 forces court marshals and sheriffs to violate their duty owed to the judicial system. Joseph Fucito, head of the Office of Sheriff of the City of New York, stated that court marshals and sheriffs owe a duty to judges and must carry out all orders of the court, which include enforcing eviction orders and collecting debts. Fucito stated that marshals and sheriffs cannot comply with Introduction 1912 because they must follow what the court tells them to do, not the City. In response to Council Member Kalman Yeger’s question about alternatives to enforcing the bill, Fucito stated that marshals and sheriffs can only stop enforcing eviction and debt collection orders if the courts have ordered a suspension.

There was only one concern raised with Introduction 1936 during the hearing. Dana Sussman, Deputy Commissioner of Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, stated that the protections in Introduction 1936 overlap with the City Human Rights law. Sussman explained that a tenant can bring a claim under the City Human Rights Law to the Commission and would receive more relief from the Commission than a claim brought in Housing Court under the bill. However, Sussman noted that if a claim is brought in housing court, then it cannot be brought up to the Commission.

Before closing the hearing, Council Member Cornegy stated that it is important for the Council to get the two bills right in order to protect tenants who were impacted by COVID-19 and to consider the concerns of small property owners.

The two bills have been laid over in committee.

[UPDATE]: On May 26, 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed Introduction 1936 into law.

By: May Vutrapongvatana (May is the CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2019)

One thought on “Council Committees Consider Two COVID-19 Tenant Protection Bills

  1. If I remember my experiences from the days of AIDS it wasn’t the LL who harassed the victims it was their fellow tenants.

    You have legislation ready for that?

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