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Bid to Cancel Rents Gains Strength

Legislation to cancel rent for residents and businesses hurt by the COVID-19 crisis gained the support of Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Comptroller Scott Stringer on Tuesday. Twenty-two Democratic state senators also back the measure authored by Mike Gianaris of Queens.

That bill stipulates that “any residential tenant or small business commercial tenant in the state that has lost income or has been forced to close their place of business as a result of government ordered restrictions in response to the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), shall have all rent payments suspended for 90 days following the effective date of this act.”

Under the law, the waived rent would never be charged, nor would any late fees. Leases that lapse during the 90 days would automatically renew. The law would also mandate forgiveness of mortgage payments by landlords who face “financial hardship” as a result of the rent cancellation.

“We need rent relief for those impacted by this crisis,” Johnson said in a statement. “We need to balance rent relief with financial support for building owners whose tenants are suffering, especially small, mom and pop landlords and non-profit building owners. We should consider whether we should—in some cases–extend temporary tax relief to those landlords so that they can get through this period. “

Stringer tweeted support for the notion as well.

Mayor de Blasio has called not for rent cancellation but for a freeze on rent-stabilized rents, which would be achieved by cancelling this year’s Rent Guidelines Board process. City Hall did not respond to a request for the mayor’s position on rent cancellation.

Both the Gianaris proposal and the mayor’s call go beyond the eviction moratorium imposed by the governor by executive order. While the governor’s order prohibits evictions for non-payment of rent over the next three months, the unpaid rent would be due at the end of that period.

De Blasio’s proposed rent-freeze would not protect tenants unable to afford their current rent. It would apply to all rent-stabilized tenants, whether or not they could demonstrate a financial impact from COVID, but not to non-stabilized renters or to commercial tenants. Gianaris’ proposal would mean no rent for those impacted by the crisis, regardless of whether they were stabilized or not, and would also affect commercial tenants, but would end after three months, while the mayor’s approach would likely last a year.

Meanwhile, the Right to Counsel Coalition and Housing Justice for All are planning to release on Wednesday a toolkit for how to perform a rent strike. “Rent is due tomorrow. Thousands can’t pay rent, but Cuomo has yet to cancel rent,” the coalition said in a statement. “Our only and best option is to organize!”

Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents property owners, dismissed the discussion.

“Rent cancellation and rent strikes are nothing more than cheap political opportunism at their worst,” he said, via email. “If society feels that rent cancellations are necessary than there should be a dollar for dollar reduction in real property tax for affected owners. This way everyone bares the cost. We’re all in this together, right?”

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