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 eligibility here and 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 for a period of 90 days—until mid-June (NYS executive order). 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 April 15, 2020, though it may be extended at that time. 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 presidential primary. Anyone who wants to vote via absentee ballot instead of visiting a polling place in person due to COVID-19 may do so. You must fill out this request form (Erie County) to receive an absentee ballot.
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. 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.
- 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.
- Send Absentee Ballots to all Voters: Anyone can now request to vote absentee for the June 23rd election, but NYS can't stop there. Getting an absentee ballot is a multi-step process and many Buffalo households don't have the internet access to do so. Further, many voters may not know how to request an absentee ballot. To make absentee voting accessible to all eligible voters and to promote public health, NYS should automatically send a pre-paid absentee ballot to all eligible voters (no request necessary). PPG is a part of the Let NY Vote Coalition. You can see the Coalition's full list of demands here.
- 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
- Child care
- Universal healthcare
- No-Excuse Absentee Voting
- Just Cause Eviction
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 Change in the Time of COVID-19: Taking Stock of Implementation
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.