The COVID-19 crisis is magnifying the importance of equitable public policy and exposing the structural problems that persist in our health systems and economy. Several of these issue areas were already priorities on our 2020 Community Agenda, including reducing evictions, reversing water shut-offs, improving language access and inclusion, and making healthy food available to our children.
Policy Changes Adopted to Date
These policies have been adopted in response to the COVID-19 emergency. We are monitoring their implementation and impacts in Buffalo Niagara and ensuring the government response is adequate to the challenges at hand.
- Paid sick leave: The NYS Legislature passed a narrow COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave policy for employees who were “ordered” to quarantine or isolate by a relevant governmental authority. People who have self-quarantined to limit their exposure to COVID-19 do not seem to be eligible. See information on the NYS program here and here. Additionally, the federal government has a program for COVID-19 sick leave. You can learn more about both programs here.
- Federal mortgage moratorium: For FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac single-family home mortgages, there will be no foreclosures for 60 days (through April 2020). If you have a multi-family home mortgage through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may apply for forbearance on the condition that you do not evict any tenants while the loan is in forbearance.
- New York State mortgage moratorium: For private mortgages, NYS Governor Cuomo has encouraged banks to waive mortgage payments for 90-days (until mid-June). Homeowners would have to make up these payments eventually. However, the governor’s declaration is currently only advisory; the banks may still require that homeowners pay.
- Eviction moratoriums: There are eviction moratoriums currently in place at both the state and federal level. Each of the moratoriums has different timelines and housing it applies to. Under the state moratorium, all residential and commercial tenants are protected from eviction until at least June 20th. Governor Cuomo also announced on May 7th that landlords cannot charge tenants late fees for late rent payments and that tenants may use their security deposits as rent. Under the federal moratorium, only certain residential housing is covered, including most affordable housing. Tenants in these properties cannot be evicted for a 120 day period (until July 24) for non-payment of rent. Also, landlords of these properties may NOT charge tenants any fees or penalties for late payment of rent during this period. See here for the full list of covered housing under the federal moratorium.
- All non-essential workers must stay home: This is a NYS executive order effective Sunday, March 22, and it lasts indefinitely. Here’s the list of essential businesses.
- Utility shut-offs moratorium: NYS Governor Cuomo ordered utility companies to suspend utility shut-offs for customers who are unable to pay their utility bill. This applies to National Grid, National Fuel and Buffalo Water/Veolia.
- Waiting period for unemployment benefits waived: For people who are out of work due to COVID-19, NYS Governor Cuomo waived the 7-day waiting period for collecting unemployment benefits. You can apply here for benefits. (NYS executive order 202.1)
- State medical and student debt collection suspended: NYS Governor Cuomo paused collection of debt that is owned to the state government, which includes medical and student debt. This suspension will last until mid-May. Debt collection by private companies has not been suspended.
- City late fees and interest suspended: The City of Buffalo suspended late fees or interest on accounts including Tax, Sewer, Water, User Fee, Parking, Traffic and other departmental citations (from March 17 until further notice).
- NFTA bus and rail fare suspended: Starting Friday, March 27, the NFTA will no longer collect bus and rail fare from passengers as a precaution in the COVID-19 pandemic. Passengers are asked to enter and exit the rear doors of the bus to protect NFTA drivers.
- Shelter and meals available to the homeless: The wintertime Code Blue program to shelter the homeless has transitioned into "Code 19" during this public health crisis. The ECC Flickinger Athletic Center (21 Oak St) is now open 24/7 to provide meals and shelter during this emergency. Find updates here.
- Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act: This $2 trillion federal economic stimulus package was signed into law on March 27. $600 billion of the stimulus will go to individuals in the form of $1200 cash payments to those making less than $75,000, as well as additional payments for those on unemployment (up to $600 more per month). Freelancers, gig economy workers, and furloughed employees can also now apply for unemployment. $377 billion of the package goes to small businesses, which includes non-profits. Non-profits can apply through the Paycheck Protection Program for a forgivable loan to help cover payroll and operating expenses through the end of June. See this chart for all loans available to non-profits through the stimulus. $500 billion of the stimulus will go to large corporations. $100 billion will go to the hospital and healthcare industry. $340 billion is allocated to state and local governments. Among other funds, Western New York is expected to receive $14 million in block grant (CDBG) funds and $12 million in homeless assistance funds. Here's a visual depiction of the stimulus package.
- Absentee ballots: Governor Cuomo has expanded absentee voting for the June 23rd primary. Under the Governor's orders, all boards of elections will automatically send out applications for absentee ballots to eligible voters. In order to receive an absentee ballot, you must fill out the form and send it back to the board of elections. Alternatively, you can simply request an absentee ballot by submitting your information here.
Policy Changes Still Urgently Needed
These policies are still needed now to meet residents' basic needs and address the ongoing impacts of the crisis.
- Rent relief/cancellation: Thousands of workers in the state were laid off as a result of COVID-19. Many won’t be able to pay their rent during this crisis and will likely be evicted once the eviction moratorium is lifted. NYS should cancel all rental payments during this period of crisis and provide a standard rental payment to landlords. Bills currently in committee that would address this issue include NYS Senator Gianaris' bill S8125A and NYS Senator Kavanagh's bill S8140A. Sign the petition to cancel rent. At the federal level, Representative Ilhan Omar has introduced a comprehensive rent and mortgage cancellation bill that would protect tenants and homeowners, reimburse landlords and lenders, and fund the creation of more affordable housing. Support it here. The NYS legislature should also pass the Home Stability Support bill, which would provide much-needed rental assistance to people who qualify for public benefits and are facing homelessness.
- Debt collection moratorium: While debt collection owed to NYS has been suspended due to COVID-19, debt collection owed to private companies has not. In this public health and economic crisis, everyday people need access to their money in order to survive. Yet, private debt collection is resulting in frozen bank accounts and wage garnishments. Governor Cuomo should suspend private debt collection immediately. Sign the petition here.
- Release aging and non-violent inmates: Incarcerated people are currently some of our most vulnerable community members when it comes to contracting COVID-19. They are in a confined space—often packed together—and are not provided with basic hygiene supplies like soap. Further, the Erie County Holding Center has demonstrated that it does not provide adequate medical care to incarcerated individuals at the best of times. Aging people who are currently incarcerated should be released immediately as they are highest-risk for contracting severe and deadly cases of COVID-19. Similarly, non-violent inmates should be released immediately. Sign the petition here. To see PPG's full analysis and recommendations on reducing the spread of COVID-19 in jails, see our post here.
- Restore water service: Buffalo Water should take a proactive approach to reaching households whose water was turned off for nonpayment in the months before the crisis, and quickly turn their water back on at no cost. Sign the petition here.
- Language Access for public health and emergency information: The City of Buffalo and Erie County have provided limited information in our region's top languages other than English during the crisis. Immigrant and refugee organizations have expressed the difficulty of communicating "stay at home" and public health messages without official information translated, which harms community health for all. Local governments should work more quickly to provided translated resources and video messages in top languages.
- Provide Emergency Fiscal Support for Non-Profits: Non-profits and community-based organizations provide essential services like food, health services, childcare, language access, and more. Non-profit organizations providing essential services should receive emergency fiscal support while non-profit organizations providing non-essential services should be eligible for grants based size.
Policies to Move Toward Long-Term Equitable Recovery
These policies can ensure we move forward to ensure lasting, equitable economic change. While these policies benefit everyone, they are particularly important for populations and communities that were vulnerable at the start of the crisis, facing health disparities and historic patterns of inequality and discrimination.
- Pro-worker, High Road labor standards: The Buffalo-Niagara region suffers from a lack of high-quality, living wage jobs. One third of our workforce makes less than $15/hour, and many workers do not have access to health insurance through their employer. Yet, each year, millions of taxpayer dollars are dolled out to real estate developers and big businesses as incentives to invest in our region. Local and state governments should require companies that receive taxpayer-funded incentives to create high quality jobs that pay living wages. Our officials must also monitor these companies to ensure that these promises are fulfilled.
- Expand voting accessibility: While NY passed a slew of voting expansion bills in 2019, there’s still much to be done. The NYS legislature should commit to passing same day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots on the first day of the 2021 legislative session. These measures are necessary to remove the barriers that keep many New Yorkers from exercising their constitutional right and civic duty to vote.
- Protect tenants and improve housing quality: Low-income renters are some of the most vulnerable people in our community due to many factors including a lack of quality jobs, stagnant incomes, poor housing quality, and limited emergency rental assistance. There are many steps that our local government can take to stabilize our renters. Erie County should enact the supplemental shelter allowance to bridge the gap between rental assistance and the actual cost of renting an apartment as well as expand the criteria for emergency rental assistance when a renter is facing homelessness. The City of Buffalo should legislate proactive inspections to ensure quality rental housing throughout our city and should refuse landlords the right to evict if the property is not up to code via a Clean Hands Eviction law. Finally, the City should pass Just Cause legislation to ensure that tenants cannot be evicted without a good reason. For our full list of recommendation, see our report here.
- Equitable water financing: The Buffalo Water Board should develop programs and policies to ensure more equitable financing and rate structures for low income individuals who are unable to pay their water bills. Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Buffalo residents each year have their water turned off because of nonpayment of water bills; some residents of our city then live without water for months. Water is a human necessity, and we must institute equitable billing structures to ensure that all residents have access to this vital resource. More equitable policies will assist individuals living with disabilities, fixed incomes, or life emergencies that preclude them from paying their water bills.
- Child care
- Universal healthcare
COMMUNITY GROUPS IN THE LEAD
We are collecting stories and examples to document how community groups—as they always do—are stepping up to fill the gaps in our systems which this emergency has so clearly magnified and exposed. From block clubs and established neighborhood organizations to rapidly forming coalitions, community groups are providing incredible leadership in this time of crisis. Long-term recovery should center their needs, insights, and leadership too.
If you have a story or example to share, email email@example.com or tweet @PPGBuffalo and @Buffalo_Commons.
UPCOMING COVID-19 COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS
We’ll host two Buffalo Commons partner virtual community conversations in April:
1) Coronavirus and Communicable Diseases Workshop, Virtual, Tuesday, April 14, 12-2pm
2) Policy Solution for COVID-19 Response and Recovery, Thursday, April 30, 3:30-5pm
3) Community-Based Research Needs for the COVID-19 Crisis and Recovery.
Details will be updated on this page. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to be notified directly.
Note: many of our previously scheduled Buffalo Commons capacity-building workshops will be held in the weeks ahead in a virtual format.
SUBMIT YOUR COVID-19 CRISIS RESEARCH REQUEST
As usual, we are here to connect you to researchers or graduate students who can help find local solutions to your questions. Please use our Buffalo Commons Research Exchange form to submit your research need related to this crisis and we will share it with our researcher network. Or email email@example.com to get started.
In the weeks ahead, we will feature locally-focused research on the crisis and its impacts on this site.
Please submit additional policy priorities and local resources to firstname.lastname@example.org.