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Industry looks to feds as renters stage strike

The Real Estate Board of New York is calling on the federal government to launch an emergency rental assistance program that would help both tenants and property owners fighting financial ruin during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Emergency rental assistance provides rental support for tenants who need it most during uncertain economic times like these. Guaranteed rental income also allows property owners to maintain healthy and clean spaces for tenants, keep building workers employed and pay their own bills,” said REBNY president James Whelan in a joint op-ed with Priscilla Almodovar, CEO of the non-profit Enterprise Community Partners.

“Without emergency rental assistance, the financial and health burdens communities suffer will grow even starker, as many residents risk losing their homes and housing providers risk losing their businesses.”

The call came as thousands of renters across the country staged a May 1 rent strike. In New York, organizers hailed the city’s largest protest since the 1960s as strikers targeted Governor Andrew Cuomo with multiple actions, including a caravan surrounding the executive mansion in Albany, a protest at his New York City office, banner drops at apartment buildings and an online rally.

“This is a historic and unique political moment. We won’t survive with the government doing business and usual, bailing our landlords – that’s what got us into this crisis,” said Susanna Blankley, Coalition Coordinator, Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

“COVID-19 didn’t create the housing crisis, inequity caused by years of racist government policy and divestment from public and affordable housing did that. We are not going to accept any solutions that bail out landlords. We need the Governor to take action today, to cancel rent and house all homeless people.”

JOE STRASBURG

City landlords, meanwhile, called the action “unconscionable.”

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, said, “It is unconscionable at a time like this – when we’re all supposed to be in this together – that the tenant lobby and politically pandering elected officials are irresponsibly advocating an across-the-board rent strike. What they’re saying is, we’re all in this together – except landlords.”

The RSA, which represents 25,000 owners of the one million rent-stabilized apartments in NYC, said cutting off landlords revenue stream would have “a devastating domino effect.”

“It’s Economics 101 – no rent revenue stream means no resources for landlords to pay their property taxes and water bills – and with this industry one of the few left standing during this pandemic, the city needs every tax dollar to continue providing essential services and paying public hospital workers, emergency responders, teachers and other municipal workers,” Strasburg continued.

“Quite simply, landlords can’t shoulder this burden and they certainly won’t have the financial resources to pay their property taxes and water bills without rent revenue – period.”

Calling proponents of the rent strike “reckless and irresponsible,” Strasburg said the federal government should provide tenants who need it additional economic assistance, including rent subsidies, like Section 8 and SCRIE.

“This is no time to play pandemic politics. Elected officials should stop making landlords the enemy. Those in leadership positions should start leading and develop viable solutions that provide relief that will help tenants, landlords and the city get through this crisis,” Strasburg said.

Gov. Cuomo has barred evictions in New York due to coronavirus hardship but has stopped short of waiving individuals’ rent payments.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has suggested the Rent Guidelines Board, which annually negotiates regulated rents, should freeze them this year.

“Rent freeze to me makes a lot of sense given what people are going through,” said the mayor. “The Rent Guidelines Board needs to look at the sheer totality of what tenants have experienced – it’s overwhelming, it’s unprecedented – the only comparison is the Great Depression. The people that are hurting the most in this equation are the tenants.

“I am certain, a lot of landlords are going through a lot too, especially smaller landlords. I don’t belittle that at all, but rent freeze is the way to go because it protects the interests of renters but also recognizes that the buildings have to keep running and renters need that too. So, that, from my point of view, is the right balance to strike.”

However, REBNY said that while eviction moratoriums have been critical for enabling low-income residents to stay in their homes, that solution is only temporary.

The proposed rent freeze, according to REBNY, would be beneficial for renters, but would transfer a sizable financial burden onto property owners.

Instead, the group said stimulus funding should be prioritized to stabilize the housing market by providing emergency rental assistance, with resources allotted for state and local governments.

The federal government has stepped up this way in the past. After the attacks of 9/11, the federal government saved many New Yorkers by allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide mortgage and rental assistance, as well as individual and family housing grants.

FEMA’s Mortgage and Rental Assistance Program was a targeted approach that ensured resources went to those individuals impacted by the attacks.

“We need a similar, targeted approach today,” said Whelan. “Those who can still pay rent must continue to do so. Relief should flow to those who are most in need during this crisis.”

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