SCHENECTADY — Landlords rallied Tuesday on the steps of City Hall, demanding and pleading for help as some of their tenants continue to not pay rent with the blessing of state government, six months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a moratorium on evictions soon after COVID arrived in New York, on the grounds that the public health crisis would be compounded by a humanitarian crisis if large numbers of suddenly unemployed people suddenly also became homeless, and were thrown together in crowded makeshift quarters.
With no threat of eviction for nonpayment of rent, some tenants stopped paying.
Cuomo has since extended the order, the state court system has imposed its own limitations on court proceedings, and the federal government has issued a moratorium of its own through Dec. 31, though fewer people are eligible for its protections than qualify under New York’s less-restrictive rules.
Add in the landmark expansion of tenant rights in New York under the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, and some landlords feel they are drowning, losing a third to half of their income with no letup in costs such as mortgage, insurance and taxes.
The rental property owners who spoke Tuesday made this point repeatedly, asking for assistance with the bills coming due from various government entities.
Most who spoke have limited operations, with a handful of properties, and many appeared to own rental units in the poorer neighborhoods of the city, where rent can be harder to collect even when there isn’t a health and economic crisis underway.
The event was organized by Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change. SLIC President Chris Morris noted that the members are mom-and-pop businesspeople lacking the resources a large rental management company might have to weather a crisis such as this.
Exacerbating that is some tenants’ misunderstanding that they don’t have to pay rent, Morrow said. It’s still due, it just can’t be collected by force of law at this point.
Some advocates for the poor, and some state legislators, have been calling for an end to all rent until after the pandemic is over.
The executive order stops well short of that. The intent is that tenants pay rent if they can and not be evicted if they can’t.
However, the executive order removed short-term consequences for not paying rent, and longer-term consequences were softened by the Tenant Protection Act.
“Landlords are suffering … money has to come in from the top, it’s just going out the bottom,” Morris said.
Deborah Pusatere, president of the New York Capital Region Apartment Association, said she supported and still supports the basic concept behind the eviction moratorium — people needed to stay home during the height of the pandemic, which is impossible without a home.
But this has resulted in landlords squeezed in the middle, with all their expenses still due, much of their income missing, and limited prospects for regaining that income, she said.
Pusatere said she’s looking at $55,000 in taxes, water bills and other municipal fees due this month on her 100 rental units, where her tenants owe $48,000 in back rent.
She says public policymakers fundamentally don’t appreciate the disconnect there. “I’m not sure if the government just doesn’t care about us, or maybe they don’t realize the impact we make on every community — we ARE the community,” she said.
Lots of people who can pay their rent aren’t paying, she added.
“At the end of this rainbow, how many of these people are going to be able to make up that back rent? None of mine.”
Kimlee Marquise of Schenectady said she and her wife have been in the rental business for only a few years.
She started by thanking her tenants for (mostly) paying their rent on time, or working with her to pay as much as they can.
“We’re blessed to have really good tenants. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgages. We have mortgages on all of our buildings. We don’t own any of them at this point.”
Marquise spoke for her fellow SLIC members who are not so fortunate. Their average profit margin is 9 percent when everything goes right, she said, and not everything is going right at this point.
Fadhila Hussain said she is one of the landlords who is suffering because of the blanket ban on evictions: Her tenants have paid only 60 percent of what they owe this year while inflicting thousands of dollars worth of damage.
“Landlording is my only source of income and I have no financial backup,” she said, adding that she doesn’t qualify for unemployment insurance or business subsidies.
One tenant moved out of a trashed apartment owing six months’ rent. It took three hours just to clean the refrigerator, Hussain said, then someone stole it.
She happened upon another tenant loading up a moving van with eight months of rent overdue and heavy damage inside the apartment. Hussain said she spent $5,100 on repairs and then the tenant — who’d apparently retained a key — came back and threw a party, creating new damage including a hookah burn on the carpet.
Hussain called police to the scene of the party in progress but they said they could do nothing.
She still has other non-payers in her apartments.
“I’m expected to house, for free, these non-paying tenants,” Hussain said.