Business of Design

New York City Renters Owe More Than $1 Billion in Unpaid Rent

As the state amps up vaccination efforts amid the second strain of the Coronavirus, the government sets aside $1.3 billion for rental assistance.

The Download: A new survey conducted by the Community Housing Improvement Program measuring the rent crisis caused by the pandemic found that New York City apartment tenants are more than $1 billion in debt from missed rent payments. This staggering figure indicates that federal stimulus packages and unemployment benefits inadequately cover the growing financial burden of unpaid rent bills across thousands of households. The Covid-19 relief package, passed in December by Congress, allocated $1.3 billion in rental assistance for New York State, though the amount reserved for New York City remains unclear.

In the coming weeks, state and city housing agencies are expected to roll out their distribution plans for assistance. In response, tenant and landlord advocacy groups have lobbied for more governmental help amid a second wave of Covid-19.

Why It Matters: The survey focuses on apartments that are subject to New York’s rent regulation laws, which account for roughly half of the city’s total rental units. As many as 185,000 households are more than two months behind on rent, with an average debt of $6,000. Jay Martin, director of the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), said rent debt from the rest of New York’s apartment roster is likely the same or greater, meaning the total debt held by renters may exceed $2 billion.

On a national scale, nearly $300 million in federal rental assistance from last spring was still unspent as of December. In New York, only $40 million of the state’s $100 million in promised rental assistance was spent as of December, ushering Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign an executive order expanding eligibility.

In Their Own Words: “It was structured in such a narrow way that it was hard for people to apply and so many were deemed ineligible” said Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Congress, an affordable housing group focused on budget issues. “How the state and city target the [new] program is going to be really important.”

Surface Says: Luckily, most New Yorkers behind on rent have been spared from eviction by federal and state laws, including Cuomo’s extended eviction moratorium until May 2021. However, some landlords have also fallen behind on their mortgages and other financial obligations. As rent collections dissipate, they can’t replace non-paying tenants with ones that can pay. If eligibility requirements for funding rental assistance are too strict, much of the money will sit unused as tenant debts stretch deeper. And, if rent debts persist after the eviction protections expire, it could cause a surge in new evictions and other litigation. 

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