By Anthony Leon
At least 40% of New Yorkers were unable to pay their rent last month, and Bhavisha Perry was one of them. A massage therapist who lives in a privately-owned apartment building in Briarwood, Queens, Perry worked at Remedy Massage, in Manhattan, NY, until the place was forced to shut down on March 17. A GoFundMe fundraiser was started by Remedy’s founder Leigh Hansen, but Perry said the donations are not enough to cover her expenses for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It doesn’t,” Perry said, in terms of a salary. “She was able to split it up between all of us and give us our share, but it’s not enough.”
Since the pandemic started, Perry was able to cover rent in March with her last paycheck. But the prospects are dim for May. She turned to her savings whenever she could, and talked to her landlords, but they didn’t give her any good news.
“I explained to her my situation and she said, well, that it’s still my obligation to make sure that the rent is paid,” Perry said.
Around 1.6 million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment due to COVID-19, and without their jobs, many can’t afford groceries, bills, or health insurance, like Perry. Without any income, Perry said it’s hard to hear from her landlords that she still has to pay for the missed rent, even after the coronavirus pandemic is over.
A rent strike occurred on May 1 as The Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, a New York State coalition of over 70 different tenant organizations, announced the purpose of this strike was to pressure Governor Andrew Cuomo into cancelling rent payments for at least four months.
In addition to cancelling rent, the coalition hoped to get around one million New Yorkers to withhold their rent in order to protest for a rent freeze and housing for the over 92,000 homeless people in New York City, the Action Network’s “May Day: Can’t Pay” petition stated.
The petition was able to garner over 14,000 signatures and Peggy Perkins, one of the strike’s organizers, said that the rent strike was very successful, as many people participated in their Zoom press conference at 1 p.m., and the banging of the pots at 2 p.m.
“There’s a lot of people that came out today, despite it all, so, there’s quite a number that actually showed up,” Perkins said.
From car rallies to banners across apartment buildings in New York state, Perkins said people were very successful in showing their support. Although the rent strike received the backing of politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Diane Richardson, Perkins said more legislators should help provide relief for renters who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
“Honestly, we shouldn’t be doing this strike, you know what I’m saying,” Perkins said. “It should have been automatic, but… we have to really be out there and do what’s necessary so our voices could be heard.”
A bill designed to freeze rent payments for 90 days was already introduced by Sen. Michael Gianaris D-N.Y., on March 23. For people who became unemployed due to the coronavirus crisis, the bill would suspend rent payments for residential tenants and small commercial business tenants. Currently, the bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting further review, but there are some obstacles that may prevent the bill passing, Senator Joseph Addabbo said.
One problem is New York’s lack of funding from the federal government, Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, who covers the 16th Senate district, which includes Flushing and Elmhurst, said. New York is receiving $12,000 per coronavirus case while Nebraska is receiving $300,000 per case, Governor Cuomo said.
More federal money needs to go into the state budget that way it will be easier for the government to help small landlords who have to absolve the cost, Stavisky said.
“It’s not a fair distribution,” Stavisky continued. “In that regard, the governor is absolutely right. New York has not received its fair share of the federal funding and that’s what we have to get.”
The lack of funding in the New York State budget is limiting Cuomo’s ability to pass bills like this one, Stavisky said.
“We have a 10 billion dollar shortfall in our budget and we need federal money to help us out,” Stavisky said. “That’s really the bottom line. It’s not the governor.”
Tenants have already received some help, though. A 90 day eviction moratorium was issued by Governor Cuomo on March 20, meaning tenants in New York State can’t be evicted until at least June 20. Still, Gianaris believes more needs to be done in order to help tenants who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
In a letter written to Cuomo on April 8, Gianaris explained that even though the eviction moratorium is in place, the three months of rent missed will eventually have to be paid.
“Those who do not have funds for April’s rent will certainly not have the ability to pay three months worth of rent in July,” Gianaris wrote. “The resulting wave of evictions and foreclosures would exacerbate a historically difficult time.”
Through an executive order, Gianaris wrote, Cuomo has the power to bypass the legislature in order pass an urgent bill.
“You [Cuomo] already effectively used this power in a number of situations related to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the rent crisis is another opportunity for swift executive action that would help millions,” Gianaris wrote.
For tenants like Perry, she said this bill should have passed immediately.
“I think they should’ve done that the minute that Cuomo had shut down New York,” Perry said. “He forgave mortgages but he didn’t forgive paying rent and more people rent in New York than they do own, so that was an issue that I didn’t understand.”
Regardless, any bill that is passed has to help both the tenants and the landlords, State Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr., who covers the 15th Senate district, which includes Howard Beach and Middle Village, said. Multiple bills addressing this issue are co-sponsored by Addabbo.
“The better bills that I co-sponsor are those that still have rent and mortgage payments made but have a pool of funds that help subsidize the rents for now, whether be 90 days or temporarily certainly…because deferring payments doesn’t really solve the problem,” Addabbo continued.
One of the biggest hurdles when passing a bill like these, is that the senators aren’t going back to legislative session anytime soon, Addabbo said.
“There’s no time frame for us going back into session,” Addabbo said. “We will either via Zoom or in person come the fall but legislation right now is at a standstill, so legislatively, this is not the way to help the people. So, we avert to the governor and hopefully even the president to make these administrative decisions to help the renters and the owners at this point.”
In terms of helping small businesses, which includes merchants and property owners, Dr. Calvin Brown, the Assistant Commissioner of Neighborhood Development for New York City Department of Small Business Services, said that small businesses should start moving online, if they haven’t already, in order to gain some of the revenue that was lost by their physical sales.
“By having a web presence, it only increases your competitiveness and your ability to sort of weather any type of disaster that may happen, whether it’s man-made or some other natural disaster,” Brown said.
Additionally, Brown suggests that merchants should try to gain a better relationship with their property owners, as the rent will still have to be paid eventually.
“I feel like this is an opportunity to kind of reset and for those merchants that are in a building where they don’t own that space, you should really kind of broker a better relationship with that property owner,” Brown said. “You want to make sure that you can go into these unknowns with a better position.”
If this bill were to pass, Stijn Nieuwerburgh, a finance professor at the Columbia Business School, said that people who can pay their rent may choose not to pay their rent, and this would ultimately hurt the landlords who have to pay utilities, mortgages, and property taxes for the respective buildings that they own.
“Do you know what happens if the government seems to suggest that you don’t have to pay,” Nieuwerburgh said. “Why did you pay your rent? So now, maybe there’s people who can pay their rent that have chosen not to pay their rent, which of course makes it even more difficult for the landlords to stay afloat.”
Even without the rent and eviction bills, Nieuwerburgh said that the landlords would still suffer as around 30 million people lost their jobs across the United States over the past six weeks due to the coronavirus epidemic.