Frequently Asked Questions about the Campaign to Cancel Rent

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What does Cancel Rent, Reclaim Our Homes mean? 

It means that all housing costs -- rent, mortgages, and utilities -- are not owed for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, and they aren’t owed later, either. This must be applied universally and automatically, and must be paired with a permanent and long term investment in social housing.

Social housing is housing that is permanently affordable to people at all income levels, not run for profit, and capable of solving the homelessness crisis. 

What Would Cancel Rent and Reclaim our Homes Accomplish? 

A strong cancel rent policy would: 

  1. Universally cancel housing payments (rents, mortgages, and utilities) for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
  2. Create a small landlord hardship fund and ensure that all subsidies to landlords come with basic requirements like good cause eviction, rent freezes, and tenant opportunity to purchase.
  3. Prevent a corporate landlord buy-up of properties.
  4. House the homeless AND expand the universe of housing that is run for people, not for profit.

Why are we calling for universal rent cancellation? Why not just cancel rent for those who need it?

Tenants need direct and automatic housing relief. If the state does not provide immediate and universal relief to all tenants, there WILL be people left behind. Without universal relief, large numbers of New Yorkers will lose their homes during a public health crisis. 

While cancelling rent based on need may seem like a common-sense idea, it does not take into consideration how need is determined by the government. 

First, the process of determining need takes a lot of time and resources, which we do not have during this crisis. By the time the government determines you are eligible for relief, you may already have lost your home. 

Second, this process WILL exclude people who have a genuine need: undocumented people, people unable to meet deadlines and provide paperwork, people who fall a dollar over some arbitrary income eligibility threshold, etc. There are any number of ways for people to fall through the cracks, which could be the difference between keeping and losing your home.

We support universal rent cancellation and a targeted landlord hardship fund for a few reasons:

  1. There are far fewer landlords than tenants. A means-tested program for landlords would be much easier to implement than a means-tested program for tenants.
  2. The government should not be providing relief to landlords who harass their tenants in the pursuit of profit.
  3. If a landlord does not get relief, they will not lose their home or go hungry. Tenants will. 

What does “universal” really mean? Who should rent be cancelled for?

We believe that all renters across New York State should not be required to pay their rent for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and they should not have to repay it later. These renters include:

  • Renters in manufactured homes
  • Renters in single family homes
  • Renters in multifamily apartment buildings
  • Subletters
  • Renters living in public or assisted housing

For rent cancellation to truly be universal, there should be no eligibility determination necessary for your rent to be cancelled. This means that rent cancellation would apply to people most often excluded from public policies (like public assistance), including undocumented people and people with criminal histories.

When you say “rent,” what does that really mean? Does that include utilities?

We are calling for a cancellation of all housing costs. This includes:

  • Rent payments
  • Utilities payments (electric, gas, water, sewage, and internet)
  • Mortgage payments
  • Any late fees, or fees for not paying rent

What is the difference between cancelling rent, suspending rent, and a “rent freeze”?

  • Rent cancellation: tenants will never have to pay rent that would have been owed during the cancellation period.
  • Rent suspension: tenants do not have to pay the rent now, but they will have to pay it later.
  • Rent freeze: tenants have to pay rent now and later, but the monthly rent payments can’t increase when signing a renewal lease. 

We are calling for a cancellation of rent, not a suspension of rent. Suspending rent payments simply delays the inevitable: mass evictions of people who can’t afford to pay their rent.  We are also calling for a rent freeze that applies to all tenants in New York State (this is in addition to the rent freeze that applies only to rent regulated tenants, through the Rent Guidelines Board). 

What about landlords? Won’t they lose money?

Property values for rental buildings in New York State have grown tremendously over the last 25 years. Under these market conditions landlords have enjoyed monopoly profits: whether or not they have maintained their buildings as safe, stable, and affordable places to live, owners have been able to reap the benefit of rising values simply by being the owners of those buildings at the right moment in time. 

While landlords may argue they do not have money in the bank to deal with forgiving rent, they must acknowledge that their ability to grow their portfolios and enrich themselves has been dependent on two things: favorable government policy, and consistent rental income from residents.

Now that rent is near impossible for renters nationwide, we are calling on landlords to bear the burden of this crisis after so many years of unabated profit.  

Many landlords are already receiving relief -- either from the government or from the banks they have mortgages with. We recognize, however, that mortgage cancellation may disportionately benefit those landlords who have most flagrantly over-financed their buildings. For small and non-profit landlords who can’t afford to lose rental income we support a hardship relief fund that landlords will receive relief from if determined eligible. However, many landlords are large corporate enterprises -- one recent analysis put the average landlord portfolio size at over 20 properties and close to 900 units. 

What about small and non-profit landlords? 

We are fighting for a small landlord hardship fund to make sure that mom and pop landlords -- many of whom live in the buildings they own -- are able to get the support that they need to maintain their buildings. 

We believe that Cancel Rent is the only policy on the table that makes way for non-profit landlords to actually invest in their portfolios, and even expand the amount of housing that they own!

In addition, we are fighting to cancel mortgage and utility payment, and for a hardship fund for small landlords to get relief.  

What about vouchers and rent supplements? Why are those not enough? 

Rent supplements (commonly known as vouchers) are a necessity for the over 92,000 homeless New Yorkers who need immediate access to safe, permanent housing.The fastest way to help people exit shelter or get off the street is to help people pay for housing. 

Providing vouchers for New Yorkers who are homeless builds our capacity and builds our movement. By ensuring that homeless New Yorkers are housed we can make sure that those who have experienced homelessness have as much organizing and movement building leverage as renters do. 

But vouchers are not the whole solution, and come with their own issues. Namely:

  1. As our homeless neighbors know better than any of us, vouchers often do not work for those who hold them. As long as vouchers have been around, landlords have engaged in the discriminatory practice of refusing to serve those who use them.
  2. Vouchers transfer public wealth to private players: namely, to landlords and the real estate industry. If a voucher program does not come with conditions for how landlords must treat their tenants, it ends up condoning and incentivizing bad landlord behavior. Without rent control, vouchers may inflate rents. 
  3. Vouchers are means-tested, which means that people must prove they are eligible to receive assistance. Undocumented people, people unable to meet deadlines and provide paperwork, or people who fall a dollar over an income eligibility threshold may not be able to receive assistance, despite a genuine need. There are any number of ways for people to fall through the cracks in a voucher system, which could be the difference between having and losing a home.

A strong rental subsidy program must address these concerns by:

  • Prioritizing people who are currently unhoused; 
  • Permanently funding the rental subsidy; 
  • Leveraging it to force landlords into operating agreements that include good cause eviction, tenant opportunity to purchase, and strong rent controls

However, because of the means-tested nature of a voucher program, and because without rent regulations associated with the voucher, it will not be enough to ensure that all New Yorkers have a home and that they are not at risk of losing that home.

What about unemployment benefits? Why are those not sufficient? 

Even before the COVID crisis, nearly half of households in New York were rent-burdened; if wages weren't enough, unemployment benefits won't be, either.

Unemployment benefits are unavailable to many. In particular, they are unavailable to New Yorkers who are most impacted by coronavirus: undocumented people and workers who have had their hours cut are not eligible for unemployment. Even those who are eligible may not receive unemployment benefits in time, given the difficulties of navigating the unemployment system.

Unemployment money is not enough to protect people. Unemployment benefits will only be paid for 39 weeks, and it will take a lot longer than that for those who lost work to get back on their feet. 

What is social housing?

Social housing is permanently affordable housing that promotes social equality and democratic control. Social housing includes:

  • Public housing
  • Housing owned and managed by the community
  • Housing owned and managed by a non-profit organization

The aim of social housing policy is to redefine housing  as a public good, like mass transit, libraries, or schools. It is based on the fundamental principle that everyone – no matter their income, background, or their conformity to social and legal norms – has the right to a home. 

A permanent and long term investment in social housing is how we Reclaim Our Homes.

How do we invest in social housing to Reclaim Our Homes?

Whether or not rent is canceled, we are entering a period of sustained distress in the housing market. There are a few ways to create more social housing, including:

  • Establishing a social housing acquisition fund.
  • Only providing relief to landlords who agree to create permanently affordable housing.
  • Allowing tenants to purchase their buildings when they go up for sale, using a statewide right-of-first-refusal law and public funds for social housing.
  • Purchasing properties at a discount from landlords who owe a substantial amount of taxes.
  • Reclaim physically or financially distressed property by reforming local tax lien sales.
  • Using public land to develop social housing.
  • Encourage and incentivize  investment in social housing by mission-driven financial institutions.

Policies that promote resident governance would bolster the development of social housing. These policies include legally defined resident rights and dedicated funding for education, technical assistance, and organizing. While needs will vary depending on housing type, residents may need support with tenant association formation, cooperative governance, housing finance and management.

What will happen if rent is not cancelled, and we do not invest in social housing?

In the immediate term, if the state does not #CancelRent for all, we WILL see mass evictions of people once courts reopen. This will happen even if vouchers are provided to some, because they will not be provided to all who need relief.

Longer term, whatever policy decision is made in this moment of crisis, a downturn in the housing market is coming. In this downturn, large private equity firms and other corporate interests will seize even more of the housing market than before. These firms have a singular interest: maximize profits. This profit motive will lead to rents continuing to increase, which will lead to even more precarity for renters. 

If the state does not substantially invest in social housing, they will be bailing out the real estate industry while leaving tenants behind. They will be allowing the status quo (which was unacceptable to many before this crisis, and will continue to be unacceptable) to continue. They will be condoning the egregious conditions that New York’s vulnerable renters are forced to suffer under; and they will be supporting landlords who, in a decent society, would not even be allowed to own property, after all they have done to exploit their tenants.