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Hurricane Warning: Tenants Nationwide Face a Looming Wave of Evictions

Issue 260

Tenant organizers in Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Missouri, Illinois & California speak out.

Steven Wishnia Dec 19, 2020

The United States could see a Hurricane Katrina of evictions next month, as the federal Center for Disease Control’s limited moratorium on evictions and two programs expanding unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire by Dec. 31.

In late September, the National Council of State Housing Agencies projected that by January 2021, up to 8.4 million renter households containing more than 20 million people could have eviction cases filed against them. It estimated that would include more than 1 million people in California, 860,000 in Tex-as, and 730,000 in New York.

The crisis has been looming for months as back-rent piled up for people who lost jobs or income during the epidemic, but tenant organizers around the country say the breaking point will come if the federal eviction moratorium and the expanded unemployment-benefit programs—a 13-week extension for people who have exhausted the six months of regular benefits, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to freelance and gig-economy workers—are not renewed. The CDC’s order, which prohibits evicting people who have lost income from pandemic-related causes for nonpayment of rent if they would likely end up homeless, is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

“Come January, I don’t think any locality in Massachusetts will have an eviction moratorium,” says Helen Matthews of City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston. “We’re facing down a new year with no protections. It’s hard to put words to how scary it is.”

In April, Massachusetts enacted “one of the strongest eviction moratoriums, because we organized and fought for it,” she says, but it expired in October. Since then, she adds, almost 3,000 nonpayment eviction cases have been filed, along with thousands more “no-fault” cases, such as when the tenant’s lease has ended and the landlord wants to replace them with someone who can pay much higher rent. (Landlords in Boston and Cambridge could not refuse to renew leases without good cause until 1994, when a state ballot initiative prohibited local rent-control laws.)

City Life/Vida Urbana has had some success organizing tenants to bargain collectively for lower rent, however. In November, when a California real-estate investment firm bought an apartment complex in the Mattapan neighborhood, the newly formed tenant association negotiated a deal that gave all residents five-year leases with rent increases limited to 3-3.25 percent a year.

CALIFORNIA

“It’s like someone lit a huge bomb under us, and we’re watching the fuse get closer and closer.”

In California, the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, enacted in August, sets complicated rules to protect tenants who can demonstrate COVID-related hardship: If they owe rent from before Aug. 31, they can’t be evicted for nonpayment, but can be taken to small-claims court for the debt. They have to pay 25 percent of rent owed since then by Jan. 31, when the law expires, and will have to begin paying the rest by March 1.

The law “seems to have pushed back the tidal wave we still think is on the horizon,” says Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a Los Angeles housing-rights organization. But it’s so complex that “it even confuses me,” he adds.

While 80 percent of apartments in Los Angeles are rent-controlled, he says, the city already had the highest rate of overcrowding and “rent burden” as a percentage of residents’ incomes in the nation even before the epidemic hit. And tenants’ knowledge of their rights, he laments, is so low that “sometimes all the landlord has to do is file an eviction notice and people will move.” The epidemic has made it much harder to reach people; CES’s tenant-rights clinic is now being conducted on Zoom.

“I spend my days from morning until night dealing with tenants who are panicked,” Gross says. “It’s like someone lit a huge bomb under us, and we’re watching the fuse get closer and closer.”

In Alameda County, the East Bay jurisdiction that includes Oakland and Berkeley, courts have decided not to process most eviction cases, but there have been more evictions in Contra Costa County to the east, according to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Eviction “doesn’t make sense when we’re asking people to stay inside,” says ACCE board chair Sasha Graham, who lives in the East Bay city of Albany. Both ACCE and CES are calling for the state to pass a law cancelling rent debt accrued during the pandemic.

“We need to forgive people for not paying the things they cannot pay,” says Graham. But the two groups also want that coupled with aid for small landlords, so they don’t lose their buildings to foreclosure and being snapped up as “distressed assets” by corporate and private-equity owners like Blackstone and Invitation Homes.

“We could end up with the Wall Street guys coming in and grabbing up properties,” says Sandy Rollins of the Dallas-based Texas Tenants Union.

TEXAS

Lone Star State tenants have almost no rights, Rollins says. Rent strikes are illegal, tenants can be held in default it they’re even one day late with the rent, and the most commonly used lease form says they can be evicted within 24 hours after a court orders them out.

Eviction cases in Texas dropped dramatically when the state Supreme Court imposed a moratorium last spring, but have since crept back up. In Dallas, the number of eviction cases, only 30 in April, was close to 1,500 by June, says Rollins. According to state court records, 107,000 new landlord-tenant cases had been filed as of Sept. 30, slightly more than half the number filed during the same period in 2019.

Some tenants have been able to fend off eviction using the CDC moratorium, and Dallas and Austin have enacted laws to give tenants more time to respond to an eviction notice and to arrange payment—but “we’re seeing all these things come to an end at the end of the year,” says Rollins.

The state’s Eviction Diversion Program, established in October to offer rental assistance to low-income tenants financially affected by the pandemic, is scheduled to be expanded statewide on Jan. 1, from 19 to 254 counties—but it will expire Feb. 1.

KANSAS CITY

Tenants in Kansas City, Mo., also have minimal rights. Earlier this month, when the tenant union in an apartment building where the landlord had ordered all 68 residents to move out by Jan. 31 demanded free rent for December and January, he responded, “LOL.”

HARSH REALITY: a person’s belongs thrown into the street as a result of eviction. Photo: Flickr.

Since the city allowed evictions to resume June 1, landlords have filed more than 2,400 eviction cases, and judges have ordered more than 650 tenants thrown out, says Kansas City Tenants director Tara Raghuveer. Many eviction hearings are held as online teleconferences, she adds, and the courts provide no guidance about how tenants are supposed to join if they don’t have Internet access or speak a language other than English.

KC Tenants has responded with creative Zoom-bombing. The group says it has delayed more than 365 evictions since July by disrupting teleconference hearings, and in late November, one judge cancelled her entire eviction docket for the rest of the year.

“We are mucking up a process that prioritizes landlords’ profits over tenant lives,” Raghuveer said in an email message. “We are buying critical time for tenants who, like all of us, need to stay home in order to stay alive during the pandemic.”

CHICAGO

In Chicago, more than 1,500 eviction cases had been filed in Cook County courts as of Dec. 4, and will proceed if Gov. J.B. Pritzker does not extend the state’s moratorium when it expires Dec. 12, says Antonio Gutierrez, an organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union. The group, based in Albany Park, a multiracial but gentrifying neighborhood on the Northwest Side, has seen landlords be aggressive about trying to oust tenants, he says—although the state’s moratorium gave it leverage to help stop the new owner of a seven-apartment building from emptying it.

The ATU had been campaigning to repeal the state’s ban on local rent-control laws and for a law to prohibit evictions without “just cause,” but is now concentrating on “creating the infrastructure for eviction support,” Gutierrez says. That includes connecting tenants with legal services and helping immigrants with income and legal documents.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” he says.

NEW YORK

In New York City, the first known eviction since the beginning of the pandemic took place Nov. 20. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had extended the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which largely prohibits evicting residential tenants if they can prove they lost income from the pandemic, until Jan. 1, but the state court system’s moratorium on evictions expired Sept. 30.

The city’s five Housing Courts reopened in September and October. In early November, they ended their moratorium on issuing “default judgments,” allowing eviction warrants against tenants who don’t reply to eviction notices or don’t show up to court hearings. The courts, which had been telling tenants who’d received notices that their landlord is trying to evict them not to respond— they normally have to be answered within three days—but to wait until they got a letter from the court, suddenly did an about-face: The state Office of Court Administration sent letters to 40,000 tenants informing them that they now had to answer.

Met Council on Housing chair Kenny Schaeffer, a longtime tenant lawyer, paraphrases those letters’ message as, “You have to answer, and if you can’t access electronic filing and can’t get through to our (overwhelmed) phones, you have to answer in person, and if you don’t, you might be evicted, but if you come in person you might not be able to get in, but if you can’t get in, that won’t be an excuse for not answering, and you might get evicted anyway.”

A staffer on Met Council’s Spanish-language tenant hotline said she’d received a call from a 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair who’d tried to call the court to explain her defenses, but got no answer and the voicemail box was full. She couldn’t respond online or in person because she doesn’t have a computer and can’t walk.

The situation is much worse in Rochester, a city of about 205,000 people where two-thirds of the residents are renters. As of Dec. 4, according to Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union organizer Allison Dentinger, judges had issued 100 eviction warrants, 65 for nonpayment and 35 “holdovers,” generally owners refusing to renew the leases of tenants who complain about lack of repairs.

Evictions are happening quickly and aggressively, she says. On Dec. 8, a tenant reported that a city marshal had climbed into through the window of his home to change the locks after he refused to answer the door. In another case, the landlord changed the locks in a woman’s apartment while she was in the hospital with a heart attack, claiming that she’d “abandoned” the unit.

That’s illegal, Dentinger says, but “it’s sort of the Wild West up here. There’s very little accountability.”

In mid-November, a quickly organized blockade—“we alerted everybody”— stopped city marshals from evicting a single father who’d lost his job in the pandemic. A judge had ruled he wasn’t covered by the CDC moratorium because he’d been on rent strike when the pandemic hit. The landlord had refused to accept government rental-assistance payments.

That was a victory, but “an individual solution to a systemic problem,” Dentinger says. “We need to cancel rent and mortgage payments, house our homeless, and pause all evictions immediately.”

Bills to do all three have been introduced in the New York State Legislature, and Dentinger hopes it makes them a priority when it returns on Jan. 6. Those, along with just-cause evictions and helping small landlords avoid foreclosure, are common threads in tenant groups’ legal and legislative agitation around the nation.

Gutierrez is encouraged by the growth of “organic” tenant networks. The ATU is now part of the Chicago Tenants Movement, a coalition of 15 groups that includes the Chicago Teachers Union. The coronavirus crisis seems to have accelerated the recent development of tenant organizing outside its traditional strongholds in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles.

In Boston, City Life/Vida Urbana, which did a number of eviction-blockade sit-ins during the foreclosure crisis of 2008-10, is again trying to organize an eviction-defense network. “We are prepared to do direct action and blockading evictions on a mass scale if we have to,” says Helen Matthews.

For Sasha Graham, the basic issue is fairness. “People don’t have any money. It’s just not possible to ask people to pay the last nine months of rent when there was already a housing crisis before the pandemic,” she says. “The money is there. It’s about having the courage to tax people who have the money. It has to be about the collective.”

WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET AN EVICTION NOTICE

If your landlord is trying to evict you, they must first send you a written warning that they intend to take you to court. They then serve you court papers saying they want to evict you.

These notices, usually taped to your door or handed to you personally, are more bark than bite. But you must respond to the court papers on time in order to defend yourself. It’s the first step in a process.

There are two types of evictions: nonpayment and holdover. In a nonpayment case, your landlord must first issue a demand that you pay what they say you owe. If you don’t pay within 14 days, they can then start a court case by serving you with papers. You will have to respond within 10 days. The best way is to call the court at the number listed.

You can avoid eviction by paying rent. Many cases are settled by a “stipulation” in which the landlord and tenant agree to a payment schedule, or by tenants getting a “one-shot deal” from public assistance to cover the back rent.

A holdover case is where your landlord wants you out for other reasons, such as noise complaints. In these cases, you do not need to respond until you get papers alerting you of an actual court date.

You can either represent yourself or get a lawyer. Right now, under special COVID rules, any tenant who has an eviction case on the Housing Court calendar can get representation through the city’s Right to Counsel law. For now, the city is waiving the income and neighborhood requirements. Call 311 if you have been given a court date.

Your landlord does not have the right to force you out, change the locks, or remove your property without a court order. This is a common threat, but it’s illegal.

There are also temporary limits on evictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information, call the Metropolitan Council on Housing’s tenant hotline at (212) 979-0611, or go to Housing Court Answers at housingcourtanswers.org. You can also call Housing Court Answers 212-962-4795.

— STEVEN WISHNIA

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