Aside from taking care of their health and staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a looming worry among New York City’s renters: What happens on April 1?
For many tenants, that’s the next date that rent is due—but if people are out of work or have lost other sources of income as a result of the pandemic, they may be worried about being able to pay rent. Other New Yorkers who were planning on moving at the beginning of the month are now facing uncertainty over whether movers are deemed “essential,” or if it’s even safe to move to a new apartment at all.
There have been some silver linings: Following a push from housing advocates, the state implemented a moratorium on evictions indefinitely due to the pandemic early this week (though some aspects of the policy still lack clarity). And Housing Justice for all, a coalition of tenant’s rights advocates, has called for a statewide rent freeze—a proposal that led to a bill from State Sen. Michael Gianaris, which would suspend rent payments for 90 days for residential tenants and small businesses facing financial hardships.
Still, there are many uncertainties for renters during this time—below find answers to some of the most pressing questions tenants might have right now, from if moving is even possible to your rights if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19.
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I’m supposed to move on April 1. Am I still allowed to do that?
According to a spokesperson in Cuomo’s office, moving companies are deemed essential under the PAUSE executive order—so you can, under the current guidance, hire a mover if you need one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s prudent right now. “It is clear that the governor’s executive order requires people to stay at home,” says Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “To the extent people can stay where they are, that they are safe where they are, everyone should stay put.”
You would also need to coordinate a move with the landlord or manager of both the building you’re leaving, and the one you’re moving into—and they may not be amenable to facilitating a move.
Still, some movers are still providing services. Seka Moving, which has offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, requested and received an individual authorization from the state to keep operating. Serik Baim, the company’s CEO, told Curbed that its office staff is working from home and only crew members, truck drivers, and foremen are working at its main location with gloves and masks.
What if my lease is expiring at the end of the month?
“It would seem rational for landlords to work with their tenants to keep things as normal as possible, and to keep things in place as much as possible, so that no one needs to leave their apartments in the middle of a health crisis,” says Davidson. “Landlords and tenants should work together to figure out how people can remain in their apartments while this crisis is going on.”
Month-to-month leases could be one solution, if a tenant and a landlord can come to an agreement for the duration of the pandemic and then decide what happens once the crisis comes to an end. Such an agreement should ideally be made over email, Davidson says.
Some property owners have reached similar agreements with their tenants: Brokerage MNS has worked with developers like Moinian and Slate Property Group to allow tenants of certain buildings to continue on month-by-month leases until the crisis is over, according to Andrew Barrocas, the CEO of the brokerage. “The goal is to assure that residents have a place to stay and minimize the need to go outside to search for apartments,” says Barrocas.
Jessica Swersey, an agent with Warburg Realty, has had similar experiences with her clients. “If the landlord has not re-rented the unit, they are being very flexible in allowing a month-to-month extension,” she says. “I also have renters that need to move April 1, and are hitting roadblocks of inability to access apartments or current tenants extending, or buildings that are not allowing any move-ins and move-outs.”
What if I live in a rent-stabilized apartment?
Whether or not the city’s nearly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments will see hikes this year is still up in the air, and at the discretion of the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), which determines if rents should be frozen, increased, or rolled back. The decision follows a public hearing process that typically begins in the spring. Right now, it’s unclear what those hearings will look like because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What if I have an issue with my apartment—something breaks, or I need an urgent repair?
Under the new PAUSE order, workers like electricians or plumbers are listed as essential, along with “other related construction firms and professionals for essential infrastructure or for emergency repair and safety purposes.” So if you have a serious, emergency issue with your apartment, contact your landlord for help.
But if your landlord is not responding to an urgent request for repairs, you do have recourse: Housing courts are still handling emergency situations, according to Davidson, including a tenant being illegally locked out or a landlord ignoring an urgent repair order. You can also call a hotline run by Housing Court Answers, which offers advice and resources for those without attorneys.
What should I do if my landlord serves me with an eviction notice?
Tenants should not be getting eviction notices at the moment—though, through a sort of loophole, landlords were able to file new eviction cases against tenants as recently as last week. But under Cuomo’s recent executive order, “courts are not allowing landlords to start cases which would end up with tenants being served with notices of petition, the court papers which start the case.”
Tenants may still be issued with a rent demand, but not a notice of petition or actual court papers. “These proceedings are not considered emergency or essential, and so neither the landlords nor their processors are allowed to be out and serving these notices so it ought not happen, because it’s actually against the governor’s executive order,” says Davidson.
If you do get served an eviction notice, contact the Department of Investigation’s Bureau of City Marshals. And keep in mind that even if the notice asks you to show up in person, you do not have to show up to housing court.
“If they don’t answer in person no harm will come to them, it will not impact the case that will eventually be brought against them, because no cases—unless they’re very specific emergencies—are being allowed to move forward in housing court,” says Davidson.
Can my landlord raise my rent right now?
If you currently have a lease in effect, “that lease governs,” Davidson says. But if you’re at the end of the lease or a month-to-month tenant, a rent increase is still possible (which is one reason why advocates are pushing for a rent freeze right now).
Under the new rent laws, renters should get notice if landlords intend to raise their rent by more than 5 percent. If the tenant has lived in the apartment for up to one year, they should get 30 days notice; if they’ve lived there for up to two years, they should get 60 days notice; and if it’s been more than two years, they should get 90 days notice.
What if I’m diagnosed with COVID-19? What are my rights as a tenant?
The Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants created a guide that addresses some critical issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, including what tenants should know if they’re diagnosed with the disease. “Your landlord cannot evict you, kick you out, or ask you to leave your apartment for having COVID-19,” according to the guidelines—and the same goes if you’re under quarantine at home, or if you’re experiencing harassment or discrimination for other reasons. If any of those things are happening, the office suggests contacting the NYC Commission on Human Rights to file a report.