A Pandemic of Evictions Looms

Issue 257

Tenant groups in New York and around the country urge lawmakers to cancel rent.

Steven Wishnia Aug 3, 2020

Millions of Americans could face losing their homes soon, as the end of various moratoriums on evictions overlaps with the expiration of extra unemployment benefits for people who lost work in the COVID-19 epidemic.

Almost 12 million households nationwide could receive eviction notices in the next four months, the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout projects, based on figures from a Census Bureau survey released July 22. In New York State, it estimates that there will be more than 1 million eviction cases filed in the next four months — more than 12 times the usual average of 80,000.

The eviction crisis is going to be more of a ‘slow boil’ rather than thousands of people being thrown out of their homes immediately.

“The levels are inconceivable,” says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers.

Even before the epidemic crashed the economy, more than half of New York City’s renters were already spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to city Rent Guidelines Board figures. In the Bronx, more than one-third of residents spend more than half of their income.

Now, says Kim Statuto, a tenant leader with Community Action for Safe Apartments in the southwest Bronx, more than half of the residents of her Claremont Village building are having trouble paying their full rent, and “some can’t pay, period.” In the surrounding neighborhood, she estimates that up to three-fourths are having trouble. Some people have been waiting four months to receive unemployment benefits. And workers in restaurants that closed “are not getting their jobs back.”

As The Indypendent goes to press, much remains up in the air, particularly whether the federal $600-a-week supplement to unemployment benefits, which expires July 31, will be renewed. A ban on evictions for nonpayment in housing that receives federal aid, from the same March relief bill, expired on July 24.

State restrictions on evictions from early in the pandemic are also eroding. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab database, Texas allowed eviction proceedings to resume May 19, California on May 31, North Carolina on June 21 and Michigan on July 15.

In New York, landlords are currently able to get a court to order tenants to pay back rent they owe, but not to get them thrown out of their apartments. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order halting evictions is scheduled to expire Aug. 6. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, enacted in June, lets tenants use having lost income in the pandemic as a defense against eviction. But without deeper rent relief, Lisa Macauley of the Metropolitan Council on Housing said in an online anti-eviction forum July 15, those measures were just “prolonging the inevitable” for tenants who lost their jobs.

The Stout study estimated that New York State tenants already owed $2.2 billion in back rent as of July 15. And proving that they lost income is difficult for those who didn’t have a consistent paycheck, such as freelance workers, tipped workers and undocumented immigrants who work off the books.

In July, the state launched a program to provide $100 million in rent relief for tenants who were already paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent before the epidemic. If they could prove they’d lost income during the crisis and were thus spending a higher percentage on rent, the state would cover the difference. Applications, originally accepted for two weeks, were extended to Aug. 6.

Esteban Giron, a leader in the Crown Heights Tenant Union, called it “a lottery for a little bit of money.”

“They need to cancel rent. I don’t know what Cuomo is waiting for,” says Statuto.

Housing Court Returns

Meanwhile, the legal machinery of eviction is slowly creaking back to life. In New York City, landlords have been able to file eviction cases by mail since June 22, says Jenny Laurie. Brooklyn Housing Court reopened for in-person cases July 27, if both sides have lawyers, and Staten Island’s is scheduled to do the same in early August.

The situation upstate is much different. Rebecca Garrard of the Housing Justice for All coalition describes it as “mass confusion.”

Only Buffalo has a court dedicated to housing cases, she explains. In other cities, it’s handled through civil courts, and in small towns, by local judges who are often not lawyers. Garrard says she is “100 percent certain” that some of these courts won’t give tenants protections they’re entitled to, and some tenants will get scared into moving because they don’t know that a threatening letter from a landlord “is not an eviction notice.”

Another problem, she adds, is that all apartments north of Westchester County are unregulated, so tenants have no legal right to renew their lease.

“The lack of protections tenants have upstate is problematic in the best of times,” Garrard says. Unless the legislature or the courts take action, “we’re going to have a massive wave of evictions.”

Albany Hesitates To Act

Three rent-relief bills have been introduced in the state Legislature. One, sponsored by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), would ban both residential and commercial evictions for the duration of the state of emergency that began March 7 and one year afterward.

The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan), would cancel all rent due from residential tenants from March 7 until 90 days after the end of the crisis. It would also create a fund to compensate small landlords, cooperatives, affordable-housing providers and public housing authorities for lost income. To be eligible for aid, landlords would have to freeze rents for five years, not evict anyone without good cause and maintain safe buildings.

The third, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), would create a Housing Assets Voucher Program, a Section 8-style rent subsidy to aid low-income homeless people or those “on the brink of becoming homeless,” says Lourdes Melo of Neighbors Together in Bedford-Stuyvesant/Brownsville.

All three have been accumulating cosponsors, says Housing Justice for All campaign coordinator Cea Weaver.

“The problem is the legislature is reluctant to act until there’s movement out of Washington,” she says. “We need them to be more proactive.”

On a further-reaching and national level, the Homes Guarantee coalition is calling for the federal government to build 12 million units of “social housing” over the next 10 years. Its goal is “moving housing from a commodity to a human right,” one member said at a July 23 online forum. Possible forms include below-market rentals, limited-equity co-ops and community land trusts.

The looming eviction crisis, Weaver cautions, is going to be more of a “slow boil” than thousands of people getting thrown out immediately on Aug. 6, to be dramatically defended by protesters doing eviction blockades. It’s going to move at a bureaucratic pace, “people going to Housing Court and losing cases. And then another round of people going to Housing Court and losing cases.”

“We are going to be doing blockades,” she continues, but people need to be prepared for more prosaic actions, like “showing up in solidarity with your neighbors in Housing Court” before they lose their case and face eviction.

Three goals for the movement, she adds, are extending the right to counsel to all tenants, slowing down eviction proceedings and organizing people to know their rights.

For advice about defending yourself against eviction, call the Met Council tenant hotline at (212) 979-0611. It’s open Monday from 1:30–8pm; Tuesday, 5:30–8pm; Wednesday, 1:30–8pm; and Friday, 1:30–5pm.

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