At Brooklyn Housing Court, the Eviction Flood Gates Open

Eviction defenders tabling outside help at-risk tenants learn their rights, use them.

Amba Guerguerian Jan 19, 2022

Housing courts opened Tuesday across New York State for the first time since the COVID-19 induced eviction moratorium expired on Saturday. There are 223,883 pending eviction cases in New York City alone, says Brooklyn Eviction Defense organizer Nicolás Vargas. 

Vargas and two other BED members tabled outside of Brooklyn Housing Court at 141 Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn Tuesday to inform at-risk tenants of their rights when facing eviction.Their four-foot long fold-up table was covered in know-your-rights pamphlets. Two small essays by Lenin and Trotsky were scattered near clipboards and hand sanitizer. The sign hanging over the front of the table read, “Brooklyn Eviction Defense: Stay and Fight Evictions! Your neighbors are here to support you!”

“There was a line of around 30 people waiting at the door when we got here at 9 a.m.,” said Chihiro Fukai, another BED organizer. 

Militant Eviction Defense

Brooklyn Eviction Defense is a coalition of tenants that supports those facing eviction, harassment and housing insecurity and that fights “against the system, not for it.” The group originally coalesced around an illegal eviction that took place at 1214 Dean St. in Brooklyn in July 2020. Amidst the George Floyd Uprising, rebel spirits were high and the “eviction defense” — a stand-off between dozens of protesters and a landlord who tenants say had illegally harassed them into moving out during the pandemic — was successful. 

Since then, the group has attempted to physically arrive at a building and shut down evictions on various occasions, some of which have been successful. There were 245 court-authorized evictions in New York City in 2021 that fell outside the protections offered by the eviction moratorium. Landlords attempted many more illegal evictions, according to Vargas. “One tenant I know was illegally locked out of his apartment. And then the landlord tore out his sink and toilet,” Vargas said.

Landlords often try to avoid court involvement by deceiving tenants who are unaware of their rights into self-eviction.

As people walked into the courthouse Tuesday, many of them stopped and took advantage of the resources at the BED table, asking the housing organizers if there’s any recourse they can take. Organizers passed out their know-your-rights pamphlets and told tenants in dire situations to call them directly to figure out a plan of action (the organization offers some services in Spanish, too). 

One woman who has been unable to pay rent due to pandemic-induced hardship told BED organizers she applied for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program over the summer, but still hasn’t heard whether her application was accepted. ERAP, New York State’s COVID rental assistance program is underfunded — it already closed once and reopened with a mere $27 million after Gov. Kathy Hochul asked for a federal grant of $1 billion — but as long as a renter fills out and submits an ERAP application, they cannot be evicted until it is accepted or denied. If their application is accepted, they cannot be evicted for one year. The state will also pay applicable rent arrears to the landlord if the landlord provides the required documentation, which sometimes doesn’t happen. Nicolás Vargas’ landlord, for example, still hasn’t submitted his documentation.

The BED organizers told the woman that she should not move out unless she receives an official court-ordered eviction notice, in which case she legally has two weeks to vacate. “But that does not mean we will let the eviction happen,” says Vargas. “No eviction is just even if it is state-sanctioned. [Brooklyn Eviction Defense] will be there, standing between the tenant and the marshals in order to keep our neighbors housed.”

She responded by smiling and saying, “We’re not going anywhere! We’re New Yorkers! You’ve got the whole of New York City who is about to be evicted.”

Know Your Rights

If evicted with a court order, NYC tenants have the right to a lawyer, which they can access by calling 311 and asking for the “Tenant Helpline.”  Landlords often try to avoid court involvement by deceiving tenants who are unaware of their rights into moving out, or as activists refer to it, self-eviction. Common landlord tricks include illegally changing the locks on a tenant’s apartment and sending them threatening notices that are confused with official eviction notices. 

Two elderly people who stopped by the table while this reporter was there had been illegally locked out of their apartments by landlords, one of whom lives in Coney Island and is now organizing her building with the support of BED. Another owes rent to a landlord who has not attended to two outstanding building violations since 2017. If a landlord doesn’t make certain repairs, a tenant, usually with some form of counsel, can withhold rent. When the BED organizers told the woman about this outstanding violation protection, she was shocked to find out rent should have been withheld until the repairs were made. 

Overall, the eviction defenders’ main take-away points were as follows:

  • Don’t self evict (move out). Make sure that your eviction notice is official and if it is, find a lawyer or contact BED at (917) 982-2265 to do so. 
  • Apply for the Emergency Rent Assistance Program. Your eviction case cannot move forward while your ERAP application is being processed.
  • If conditions in your apartment or building are negligent, you can call 311 to have an inspector come and record any need for repairs, which may be an eviction defense.
  • Organize. Start or join a tenants union. Organized tenants often face less brazen harassment from landlords and cannot be evicted for organizing.  
  • Seek help and know your rights. If you are being harassed or evicted or can’t pay rent, reach out to a tenants’ rights organization for support and education. Knowing your rights as a tenant might keep you in your apartment.  

The eviction moratorium was extended three times already since the pandemic began, thanks to persistent tenant organizing. When hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers instantly lost work in March of 2020, leaving them unable to pay rent, a mix of already-established tenant organization and new tenant groups like BED hit the streets demanding rent cancellation. While rent was never canceled, each time the moratorium was set to expire, activists mobilized on a city-wide scale and successfully extended the eviction moratorium once in 2020 and twice in 2021. This time, though, political pressure and a week of direct action wasn’t enough to sway the Governor, who earlier this month signaled she would let the moratorium expire, as reported by The City.

Getting Organized

Delene Ahye, a member of Crown Heights Tenants Union, helped organize her Prospect Lefferts Garden building at the onset of the pandemic. 

“We never had a tenants’ union until this pandemic,” she told The Indypendent. “Now the majority of tenants are in the union. Some of them had repairs that hadn’t been taken care of in a long time and some are behind on rent. So we decided to form a union to see what we could get done. We’re not scared. In a group, we are together. It’s better when you have backup.” 

A few organizers with the CHTU were also present outside of the courthouse, where they held a press conference to denounce the expiration of the moratorium. 

After extending the eviction moratorium, passing a “good cause” eviction bill is on the top of many housing activists to-do lists. “The good-cause bill, sponsored by state Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse), would give tenants in more than 1.6 million unregulated rental units protection against being evicted without a specific cause, such as not paying rent or creating a substantial nuisance,” writes Steven Wishnia for The Indy. But that’s the catch. If passed, the bill won’t protect New Yorkers who face eviction due to lack of payment, who make up the vast majority of the 223,883 pending cases, says Vargas. 

New York City’s poor and working class have struggled to hold on to affordable housing since the city became a capitalist mecca during the 1990s. At the same time, a 2018 Census survey found more than 247,000 apartments in the city – enough to house the city’s rising homeless population – were unoccupied or scarcely used. Many of these are second homes of the rich or units pulled from the market by landlords to keep rents high. 

“The wealth inequality didn’t suddenly get worse. There’s a direct coordination between the loss of money in the middle and working class and the gains in billions by Bezos, et cetera,” said Xavier Riley, an organizer with BED. 

“And housing policy follows that same pattern,” chimed in Chihiro Fukai. “The moratorium didn’t end because COVID is over. It’s because capitalism needs to resume.”

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