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WILL TENANTS FIND SHELTER IN THIS HARBOR?

Late Tuesday night, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act into law. This legislation protects NYC residential tenants from being evicted for nonpayment from March 7, 2020 to such time as the area officially reopened (i.e., when the provisions in the Governor's Executive Orders -- closing or otherwise restricting public or private businesses or places of public accommodation -- were no longer applicable). However, to qualify for the protection, tenants must establish that they experienced “financial hardship” during that timeframe. (The measure was sponsored by State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Greenwich Village), and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Kingsbridge)).

In a statement, Senator Hoylman, noted, “No single law can single-handedly solve the eviction crisis—but the Tenant Safe Harbor Act is a one crucial step to address the looming tidal wave of evictions.” He added, “Tenants will never be kicked out of their homes for owing rent during the COVID-19 period if they've been economically hurt by the pandemic . . . It establishes a permanent protection for tenants in that regard.”

While the Act extends the protections of Governor Cuomo’s eviction moratorium (Executive Order 202.28) to qualifying tenants beyond the August 20, 2020 deadline, it differs in some key respects and appears to be more restrictive. First, it only applies to apartment dwellers and excludes commercial tenants. Second, renters will need to demonstrate that they experienced a cognizable form of financial hardship. (In making such a determination, the statute instructs judges¬†to review, among other things, a tenant’s income history, liquid assets, and eligibility for, and receipt of, government assistance such as food stamps and unemployment benefits.) By contrast, Cuomo’s moratorium only required that the financial hardship be specifically caused by the virus and granted protection to all persons on state or federal assistance—regardless of their financial situation prior to COVID-19. The new legislation offers no such blanket protections.

Notably, the Act does not cancel the rental obligation, nor does it prohibit landlords from seeking money judgments. "We're not saying that people will never have to pay rent," said Dinowitz during a press conference. "That's not what this [law] is about. We're saying that people will never be evicted for rent accrued during the crisis."

However, critics -- like Cea Weaver of Housing Justice for All, a statewide tenant coalition -- believe that the legislation simply does not go far enough. "It's not an eviction moratorium bill, it's a tenant debt collection bill," said Weaver. "We don't want tenants to be liable for monetary judgments."

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society (which supported the legislation), noted, "[The new law] doesn't cancel rent. It doesn't really help people pay the rent. It just helps prevent losing their homes." She also noted that she was hopeful that financial assistance to tenants from state and federal governments would be forthcoming.

A proposed Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act would authorize another COVID relief package in the amount $3 trillion. This federal bill (which includes $100 billion in emergency rental relief) was passed by the House last month and is now before the Senate. While, closer to home, a New York State bill proposes to create a $100 million fund to offer rent vouchers for tenants who have lost income due to the pandemic.

It remains to be seen what impact, if any, this new law will have on the New York Courts’ directive which stayed all new eviction cases until July 6, 2020. The Act may also be challenged as a constitutional “due process” violation because property owners are arguably being denied the benefits of a summary proceeding -- which has historically¬†included the ability to recover possession; a right being denied here (given the public-health crisis).

While well-intentioned, the legality of this new legislation will likely hinge on whether it is found to contravene established constitutional safeguards.

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