President Joe Biden and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may think there are no costs to the nationwide eviction moratorium, in force for almost a year and now extended over the objections of the Supreme Court until October. The president needs to meet Lincoln Eccles of Crown Heights.
The son of Jamaican immigrants and named for Abraham Lincoln, Eccles is what’s known as a mom-and-pop landlord. He relies solely on income from a 14-unit, four-story walk-up building (where he lives himself) to support his wife and 4-month-old son.
But lately that income has been sharply reduced. Only three of his tenants have paid their full rent regularly; one has paid no rent at all for more than two years and owes $40,000. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program intended to help has barely started to send out checks — and wants a wealth of personal financial information about him and his family before he can get what’s owed him.
If his rental income has been drastically reduced, Lincoln’s expenses on the 116-year-old brick building have not stopped mushrooming. He’s seen the city double his property taxes — from $30,000 to $60,000 — over the past six years, even as the city limits what he can charge on his rent-stabilized apartments. The rent on one unit is set at just $460 a month.
During the eviction moratorium, the building’s boiler stopped working — it’s his priority to find the $30,000 to replace it. To afford it, he’s started taking on repairs himself. “I’ll be hammering and doing sheetrock all day,” he says.
Lincoln doesn’t actually want to evict anyone. “My normal practice is to work with people the best I can. Going to housing court is not a winning situation for anyone.” He just wants those tenants who can pay to do so — and for the promised assistance to be far easier to obtain. His greatest fear: the “professional tenant” — who works the system to avoid both eviction and paying rent. Biden has just given such grifters another tool.
Eccles’ is not an exceptional case. The combination of an eviction moratorium that gives residents license not to pay their rent and the onerous 2019 state rent-stabilization law that makes it impossible for property owners to increase rents even because of expensive repairs is a threat to the financial solvency of thousands of small landlords in New York and nationwide.
According to the Census Bureau, New York has more than 536,000 rental units in buildings with four units or fewer; the owner lives in at least 239,000 of these. Like Lincoln Eccles, these are small-time landlords not looking to make a killing by milking tenants and flipping properties but to support themselves, often by the sweat of their own brows.
Eccles’ father came to America with just $50 in his pocket — but with carpentry skills he used to help buy and maintain the property Lincoln now maintains and hopes to pass on to his son. This is the wealth accumulation that those who lament racism believe is impossible in America.
Putting a tourniquet on his rental income through the eviction moratorium not only hurts Lincoln Eccles; it hurts small tradesmen, such as the plumbers and electricians he used to hire.
“They say housing is a human right,” observes Eccles. “But I’m the one who’s being asked to pay.” The federal government, citing dubious health concerns, has intervened in a delicate housing ecosystem — causing all sorts of collateral damage.
Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that the share of individual ownership of rental buildings of five to 24 units has fallen from 66 percent to just 40 percent — setting the table for investment firms such as Blackstone to swoop in, cutting the rungs off the ladder of mobility for the next generation of small owners.
Lincoln Eccles worries every day that he will lose the building he hoped to pass along to his newborn son. His property taxes are being forced up by high-rent buildings going up nearby — but rent stabilization makes it impossible for him to raise rents. “Rent stabilization,” he says, “is the new redlining.”
Americans across the country received emergency income assistance from Washington, no questions asked. Small landlords got only questions — no assistance.
And Joe Biden continues to make matters worse.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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