The following is a lightly edited version of Habitat’s recent telephone interview with U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the new Senate majority leader. The conversation centered on the successful fight to make housing cooperatives eligible for a share of the $284 billion of forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Habitat: How did this issue first come to your attention?
Schumer: Geoffrey Mazel (legal counsel at the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council) and Mary Ann Rothman (executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums) called and said, “We've been left out.” And they explained that during the pandemic, co-ops were hurting just like other small businesses were hurting, and with everything going on, it was harder to keep their employees.
And they were right. Then the (Trump) administration decided to expand the PPP program, but only to rural electric cooperatives. We went to them and said, "What about our residential co-ops?" And they refused, I think, on political grounds because they were for rural, not urban co-ops. So I said, "I am going to work as hard as I can to get housing co-ops included in the next round of PPP." And we originally put it in the Heroes Act, which was the bill that passed the House, but not the Senate.
Habitat: That was back in May 2020, right?
Schumer: Yes, back in May. But then I had to fight and fight and fight, and I got it into the December COVID-19 bill. And so now, here's the good news for co-ops: they're eligible for PPP, just like any small business, in this second round. And the loans can go up to $10 million – 60% can pay for payroll, 40% for non-payroll. I would say to co-ops in New York who need help, they can call my office, and we will make sure they get plugged in. They've got to apply through a lender.
Habitat: Historically, co-ops and condos have had a hard time getting politicians to listen to them. This seems to be a breakthrough moment.
Schumer: It is a breakthrough.
Habitat: Casey Fannon, president of the National Cooperative Bank, recently told me that a lot of congressmen and senators don't understand housing cooperatives. They’re still seen as a New York City concentration. Do you think that's true?
Schumer: No, not anymore. To get this done, we linked up with other types of co-ops that were excluded from the PPP. I did this single-handedly. The fact that I am majority leader – and was then minority leader – allowed me to use my clout to do this, but I didn't get much support from people because they didn't understand. I do understand it because in the state Assembly and in Congress I represented neighborhoods that have lots of co-ops. I'm a cooperator myself, have been since 1982.
Habitat: You seem to think that people on Capitol Hill and in Congress are beginning to get it. What’s happening?
Schumer: They need a lot more educating, but I think this bill helped me. I had to persuade so many different senators and congressmen to go along. They're beginning to learn. Everyone knew about rural co-ops, some people knew about telephone co-ops. And what we're telling them is housing co-ops are no different in terms of their needs.
Habitat: You mentioned the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council and the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums. They did a lot of lobbying, sent letters to members of Congress signed by groups from California to New York.
Schumer: When we spoke to our New York co-ops, to Geoffrey Mazel and Mary Ann Rothman, we said, “Reach out to other co-ops.” There are general cooperative associations that include housing co-ops, but in the past they had been more led by the electric co-ops and the rural co-ops. I linked up with (former U.S. Sen.) Kent Conrad from North Dakota because he had a ton of rural co-ops. There are lots of alliances we can make to help.
Habitat: The fact that housing co-ops are now eligible for this big chunk of money for the first time – is this a major sea change?
Schumer: It is a major sea change. It's the first time that housing co-ops were recognized for their importance and vitality. I was able to get legislators who didn't know about housing co-ops to come on board to help me. And I think it'll be a change that will work in the future. Let me say this: as long as I'm majority leader, housing co-ops will have a very strong friend who has some real clout in Washington.
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