One year later, the economic toll of the lockdowns on landlords and tenants has been shattering. Gotham’s rental-housing industry may never be the same. But would Albany and City Hall have been better prepared for this crisis if they had enacted more balanced housing policies over the last decade? The sad answer is yes.
Regardless of how many landlords and tenants receive the $1.3 billion in federal rent-relief funds, it won’t be enough to rescue the city’s affordable housing, which was already on a collision course with disaster. Don’t blame the virus: This was the natural result of shortsighted policies and politically driven legislation much longer in the making.
The single-largest providers of affordable housing in the Big Apple are small owners of rental properties, usually 50 apartments or fewer. They do it with not a single dollar of public subsidy. Yet the political and activist classes turn these owners into the scapegoat for a failed rent-regulation system. Now those owners are expected to shoulder a lopsided share of the staggering economic burdens of the pandemic.
Long before COVID hit, New York’s hard-left turn led to unreasonable compliance requirements and other legislation that has left affordable-housing providers reeling. Minimal rainy-day reserves were already depleted pre-pandemic, leaving small owners unable to do even basic maintenance and repairs.
The pandemic is simply shining a light on the damage caused by the rent freezes and failed housing policies of the de Blasio administration and the draconian changes imposed by Albany’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019.
The policies were supposed to help needy tenants. Yet even with a booming pre-pandemic economy, three rent freezes, historically low rent increases, millions of dollars invested in tenant-protection programs and much else of the kind, low-income tenants continued to struggle. Socio-economic forces far beyond small landlords were blamed solely on them.
When the pandemic struck, it exposed the failures of our elected officials. But they and tenant “advocates” recklessly called for legislation to “cancel rent.” Landlords, however, weren’t offered tax or mortgage forgiveness; relief was a one-way, politicized street.
Rent subsidies for low-income tenants, funded by the state government, are the only practical and effective way to help tenants most in need and, at the same time, to maintain the rent stream that landlords need to pay their property taxes and mortgages and repair and maintain their buildings.
In 2015 and 2016, the state Senate had unanimous, bipartisan support for a program that would have protected low-income tenants living in rent-regulated apartments from future rent increases. But that proposal died twice in the “pro-tenant” Assembly.
Unfortunately, rent subsidies and vouchers don’t provide the political drama that many elected officials crave. Perhaps if sound policy prevailed five years ago in Albany, low-income tenants would be in a better financial position during this pandemic; the city, in turn, wouldn’t be billions in the hole, because landlords would be paying their property taxes and creating jobs and revenue by repairing, maintaining and upgrading their properties. That’s the positive domino effect of the rent stream.
When the economy was thriving before the pandemic, state and city lawmakers had a genuine opportunity to invest in rent-subsidy programs. Immense budget deficits, which will take years to recover from, may have closed that door permanently, all because lawmakers turned a blind eye to sound housing policy and, in the process, turned their backs on low-income tenants and the thousands of small landlords who provide affordable housing.
When a state like California, which implemented the most stringent lockdown measures in the country, has a $15 billion budget surplus over the last year, it’s impossible not to question the policy choices that New York lawmakers have made over the last decade.
After the pandemic is finally over, and $1.3 billion in federal rent relief has been depleted, the cavalry isn’t coming. It’s time for elected officials to point the fingers at themselves — not at landlords or a virus — for creating this mess. And then they must work with all stakeholders, including the providers of affordable housing, to make it right.
Vito Signorile is vice president of communications at the Rent Stabilization Association, representing 25,000 diverse landlords of more than 1 million apartments in all neighborhoods of the five boroughs.