The Stable Families Act builds off the massive pot of money that Congress sent to states and local governments to cover rent arrears for tenants who could not make payments as a result of the pandemic.

William Alatriste for the NYC Council

Ritchie Torres during his time as a member of the NYC Council.

Eighteen months after Congress established a temporary, $46 billion fund to help renters at risk of eviction during the COVID-19 crisis, a new bill from Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres would make that federal aid permanent for the poorest Americans.

Torres’ legislation, known as the Stable Families Act, would establish a permanent Rent Assistance Fund for “extremely low-income” tenants facing eviction and replenish it with at least $3 billion each year. In New York, households are considered “extremely low-income” if they earn no more than 30 percent of Area Median Income, or about $36,000 for a family of three.

The Rent Assistance Fund proposal builds off the massive pot of money that Congress sent to states and local governments to cover rent arrears for tenants who could not or did not make payments as a result of the pandemic. New York used its federal funding to create the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has paid out $2.2 billion to landlords on behalf of tenants behind on rent since June 2021.

During an interview Sunday on WBAI’s City Watch, Torres said the conditions that created the need for the federal rent relief fund have not dissipated, and in some ways have only worsened.

“There’s nothing temporary about the housing emergency,” Torres said. “And so since there’s nothing temporary about the housing emergency, there should be nothing temporary about emergency housing assistance.”

The legislation could limit the wave of evictions cresting across the country following the end of nationwide protections last year. In New York, where a state ban on most evictions expired in January, courts have issued more than 18,000 eviction warrants in 2022, up from just over 5,200 last year, according to a court system tracker. Not every issued warrant results in a final eviction but the figures serve as a comparison to past years.

The Bronx typically accounts for more evictions than anywhere else in New York. In 2019, judges issued over 30,000 warrants to remove a tenant—more than a quarter of the total warrants issued in New York. So far this year, however, judges have issued 819 eviction warrants in The Bronx, court data shows—less than every borough but Staten Island and the likely result of case backlogs and low-income tenants receiving free legal assistance under city law.

Still, the 16,742 eviction filings in The Bronx this year far outpace every other county in New York. Tenants who lose their apartments will have a hard time finding new accommodations, with the number of rentals below $1,500 a month reaching all-time lows in the five boroughs, according to New York City’s latest housing survey. The overall vacancy rate in The Bronx is 0.78 percent, the lowest in the city.

In the interview, Torres said Bronx residents have borne the brunt of the COVID-fueled economic downturn, with unemployment hovering around 15 percent in the borough—down from a “Depression-level” 25 percent earlier in the pandemic.

“The Bronx is ground zero for the affordability crisis,” he said.

The Stable Families Act has received support from local tenant groups and nationwide housing rights organizations, like the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and National Alliance to End Homelessness. NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel said the measure would “help low-income households in financial crisis avoid the trauma of eviction and housing instability.”

New York City landlord associations have also backed the bill as a way to ensure their members earn revenue and keep renters housed—though Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) President Jay Martin said he hopes the legislation would “streamline” New York’s existing ERAP process and add enough money to make more applicants whole. CHIP represents about 4,000 landlords and property managers of rent-regulated buildings across New York City.

Martin said ERAP “has been inefficient and underfunded [and] has led to tens of thousands of renters accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in debt without any hope of relief.”

The permanent federal relief fund is not the only intervention Torres is seeking to reduce homelessness and relieve the rent burden from low-income tenants. He has introduced legislation to establish universal Section 8 for every eligible American. Inadequate funding means only about 1 in 4 eligible applicants actually receives a Section 8 rental assistance subsidy.

Torres also discussed his perspective on the House’s Jan. 6 hearings—he urged the Department of Justice to prosecute ex-President Donald Trump—and called on Democrats to rally behind President Joe Biden, in response to recent polls that show a majority of the party wants a new standard-bearer ahead of the 2024 election.

Sunday’s episode of City Watch also featured an interview with former federal prosecutor Dan Goldman, counsel to the House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment investigation and a candidate for Congress in New York’s new 10th District, as well as writer, historian and activist  Fannie Lou Diane, who has helped organize Homeless Rights Month in New York City.

Listen Here: