A collapse in apartment rent collection during the pandemic is forging one of New York’s most unlikely political alliances.
The Real Estate Board of New York, the property industry’s main lobbying group, has joined with New York’s Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit association that advocates on behalf of tenant rights.
While these two groups are usually antagonists—and they are currently on opposite sides in a federal lawsuit over rent control—the pandemic has created common ground. Too many New York tenants can’t pay rent right now, which is making it harder for landlords to pay back their loans and causing tenant debt to pile up.
Both sides want to address the issue with more government action, mostly in the form of streamlined rental assistance.
“It’s nothing like a crisis to bring odd bedfellows together,” said
attorney-in-charge in the Legal Aid Society’s civil law reform unit. “I guess REBNY thinks they can’t evict themselves out of this crisis. And I would think that would be right.”
Asking rents for one-bedroom apartments Manhattan have fallen almost 20% over the past year, according to listings website Zumper, after a number of renters fled the city for cheaper accommodations or more space while working from home during Covid-19.
Many of those who stayed have fallen behind on their rent payments. A recent survey estimated that New York tenants may now be more than $2 billion in debt to their landlords.
The joint industry and tenant lobbying effort includes other housing groups and goes by the name of “Project Parachute.” The group has been pressing its case with elected officials, such as state
Sen. Brian Kavanagh,
the chair of the state Senate’s housing committee.
“Some lawmakers have been surprised to see us working together,” said
REBNY’s vice president of policy and planning. “Even though we know we won’t agree on everything, we can still work together to develop thoughtful policy reforms that help address the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers.”
The lobbying effort has been focused on changing the rules for existing rental assistance programs. New York’s Family Homelessness Eviction Prevention Supplement program, or FHEPS, requires tenants to first be brought into eviction court before they can qualify for relief. But the state’s eviction moratorium has made that impractical, limiting how much rental assistance can be distributed, the group argues.
The joint effort also advocates for raising the monthly rent ceiling to qualify for rental assistance and for expanding eligibility to more groups of people not included under current rules.
Meanwhile, New York has yet to lay out its plan for how $1.3 billion in new federal pandemic housing assistance will be spent this year. Mr. Kavanagh said he expects the state Legislature to play a significant role in deciding how the money is ultimately spent.
Neither REBNY nor the Legal Aid Society expects a permanent detente. Both submitted briefs in a continuing federal lawsuit that attempts to overturn rent control laws nationwide. REBNY favors the overturn and the Legal Aid Society opposes it.
In its latest brief from just last week, REBNY called tenant rent control protections a “grave governmental overreach in impairing constitutionally protected property rights.”
A repeal of the rent control laws would potentially subject roughly one million households in New York City to larger annual rent increases, once the economy recovers.
“I don’t expect this to be like, all of a sudden, we’re going to be besties,” said Legal Aid’s Ms. Goldiner.
Write to Will Parker at [email protected]
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