BY CHRISTINE QUINN | New York is in the midst of a critical leadership transition, with a new administration coming to Albany in a week.
This change is imperative, but it comes at a scary time for renters across New York, particularly those who have been on the brink of homelessness. The Supreme Court’s decision last Thursday to strike down part of the state eviction moratorium is clear evidence that Albany must stay focused on stopping evictions, which could transform the statewide housing affordability and rent-arrears crisis into a homelessness catastrophe.
New York has more to lose than any other state. About 675,000 New York households are extremely low income, spending more than half their income trying to pay rent each month. In fact, nearly half of all homes in the state are occupied by renters — the highest percentage in the country, according to analysis from New York University’s Furman Center. Estimates from the National Equity Atlas show that due to the pandemic’s economic downturn, 831,000 households statewide are behind on rent, owing an estimated $3.2 billion.
Many New Yorkers are still out of work — unemployment at the end of June was nearly double the pre-pandemic rate. At Win, the homeless services network I lead in New York City, 25 percent of working moms lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, and many more saw their hours cut, reducing already-fragile income. With the growing presence of the Delta variant, we could be facing even more economic damage. We can’t leave hundreds of thousands of struggling New Yorkers to figure this out on their own.
The alarm bells raised over the national eviction moratorium — which expired July 31 and was renewed by President Joe Biden amidst legal challenges — should inspire New York’s leaders to take the steps that are within their control.
Instead, we’re letting New York’s renters sweat.
The statewide eviction moratorium is set to expire on Aug. 31. Despite this looming deadline, we’re moving at a glacial pace to get federal aid to distressed renters: We have $2.7 billion to distribute in the state Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), but have sent out less than 4 percent of it. The state must get this money out the door, but that alone will not solve the problem.
There are a number of steps that Albany can take to ensure low-income New Yorkers get the assistance they need.
First and foremost, let’s amend the statewide eviction moratorium to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling and then extend it through the end of 2021. It’s absurd to think that $2.7 billion can be effectively distributed to every household in need in the next four weeks — regardless of any pledges by the state. New Jersey has an eviction moratorium through Dec. 31, while other major states are keeping theirs in place through the end of September. It would be nonsensical and cruel to let this legal safeguard disappear before the federal assistance meant to help families avoid evictions is fully dispersed.
Next, we must recognize that this unprecedented housing emergency hasn’t reached its end date. ERAP funds are designed to help pay back rent, but we don’t have great options for helping COVID-distressed renters going forward. Win has called for a Stay at Home Voucher, which would provide ongoing assistance during this crisis. With this voucher, we can ensure landlords have the income they need and tenants have the homes they need, even if they are unable to pay rent.
We should also clean up the gaps in the housing voucher programs New Yorkers depend on. After years of committed advocacy from Win and housing activists, New York City increased the CityFHEPS voucher to meet fair market rent, ensuring it can pay the rent in dozens more neighborhoods. The state Legislature passed a bill to do the same thing for the state Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS) program. The governor must sign this bill, adding another important tool to help New Yorkers afford rent.
Finally, we can make our existing assistance programs more flexible. Before the pandemic, renters could only access the state’s FHEPS voucher program if a landlord had filed an eviction case in court. That requirement was waived during the eviction moratorium, and the Legislature should extend it. Similarly, families in danger of eviction are unable to use the state’s Emergency One-Time Assistance grants (known as “One Shots”) unless they can show future ability to pay rent. That’s not easy during an unpredictable pandemic — the state should waive this requirement as we navigate this nascent recovery.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit us hard, but we can’t let it deepen the homelessness crisis we’ve worked to address. Now is the time to act. In this precarious moment, we should be using all the tools at our disposal to help families stay in their homes as they wait for the economy to recover.
This column was first published in the Albany Times Union.
Quinn is the president and C.E.O. of Win, New York City’s largest provider of shelter, social services and supportive housing for homeless families. She served as the speaker of the New York City Council from 2005 to 2013.