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The number of coronavirus-related layoffs is soaring, and Goldman Sachs is predicting that as many as two million Americans will file for unemployment this week. In response to this worsening economic crisis, Emily Gallagher, a candidate for State Assembly in the 50th District, joined other elected officials like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and State Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris in calling for a freeze on rents and mortgage payments in New York.
"Rent should be frozen for as long as mortgages are frozen, if not longer," Gallagher says. "Renters are vulnerable, and they're the workforce that the city really depends on. We have less flexibility, and so many of us are already living month to month."
Gallagher herself was laid off from her non-profit job yesterday. Today, she hosted a virtual town hall in which NYC tenants submitted questions about the pandemic. Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations (and writes a twice-monthly column for Brick Underground), was on hand to provide guidance.
Tenants asked about what to do if they're unable to pay rent and face eviction as a result, whether it's possible to break a lease if they can no longer afford rent, how to band together with neighbors who are also suffering, and more. The questions reflected a citywide crisis, in which New Yorkers' livelihoods are increasingly precarious.
Editor's note: Click here for more of Brick Underground's coronavirus coverage.
What happens if you can't pay your rent
Himmelstein advised tenants who are facing problems paying the rent to first try negotiating with their landlords. Currently, there is a moratorium on evictions, and housing courts are only taking emergency cases, which means that tenants who fail to pay rent cannot be kicked out of their apartments now.
"What I think is going to happen is that if you don't pay rent for several months, in June you will get served for nonpayment," Himmelstein said during the town hall. "Judges are going to pressure landlords very heavily to work out payment plans with people and give tenants longer to pay rent."
In the event that tenants are eventually sued by their landlords for nonpayment of rent, they may be able to defend themselves with the "force majeure" doctrine, which covers disasters that cause a person to become unable to perform contractual obligations.
"Ask landlords to reduce your rent until this blows over. If the landlord doesn't want to negotiate, say that if you take us to court, we may have a defense," Himmelstein advised. "Present the worst-case scenario. That's the kind of discussion I'm having with landlords."
Gallagher and others are hoping to help tenants avoid such a situation entirely. To that end, she is asking for signatures on a petition to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to suspend all rent collection until the coronavirus crisis is contained.
State and federal officials are also calling for a freeze
Meanwhile, State Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris is calling for a 90-day suspension of rent for residential and commercial tenants who have lost work or closed workplaces due to the crisis. In a press release, Gianaris says he's drafting legislation for a suspension of rent, and is also asking Governor Cuomo to suspend rent through executive order.
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made a similar call for a moratorium on rent:
2/3 of NYC residents are renters.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 19, 2020
Now that New York State has issued a MORTGAGE moratorium, we must also enact a RENT moratorium to prevent mass displacement.
Relief and protection from displacement shouldn’t just be for homeowners and the wealthy.
It should be for everyone.
If there is any silver lining to this pandemic, it's the way that it has exposed the struggles millions of Americans were already facing, which could lead to policy change, Gallagher said.
"Many in our district were rent-burdened before coronavirus was even a concern," she said. "This is the great exposure of what so many of us have known for so long."
Gallagher plans to hold weekly virtual town halls for the duration of the crisis.
"We want to hear from people about what they want to know, and make information very accessible and clear, and teach people to use the resources available," she said.