Photo courtesy of South Bronx Tenants Movement. Mott Haven renters demand rent cancelations at a rally in front of Bronx Housing Court in 2020.

As moratorium ends, tenant organizers fear wave of evictions

More than 24,000 eviction filings in the Bronx could go to court starting in mid-January, when the statewide eviction moratorium ends, and the result could be an increase in homelessness.

New York tenants have been protected from eviction since Sept. 4, 2020, when a CDC order went into effect. The CDC rule ended in August 2021, but it was replaced by a state moratorium that will expire on Jan. 15, 2022. There is no indication the current moratorium will be extended.

Landlord groups have welcomed its end, saying it hurts them and is unlawful. However, tenant advocates fear a rush to the courts could drive people to homelessness just as a new wave of COVID-19 hits.

“It’ll be very scary, especially for The Bronx, where there are high rates of all the indicators that lead to eviction — poverty, unemployment,” said Matthew Tropp, director for housing at Bronx Legal Aid. “It will affect communities of color. It could be devastating.”

The eviction moratoriums were designed to reduce public health risks during the pandemic and accommodate renters who lost income. Currently, an eviction is put on hold if a tenant files a declaration of economic hardship to the landlord or the housing court. However, tenants can  still be evicted for  certain reasons, such as damage to property, criminal activity, or endangering the health or safety of others.

In The  Bronx, more than 24,000 eviction cases have been filed since the federal moratorium took effect 15 months ago, according to data from Eviction Lab. Many of these cases could go to court by late January. The potential monthly docket is far longer than prior to the pandemic, when Bronx Housing Court typically received 6,000 to 7,000 filings a  month.

In 2021, New York State received $2.1 billion from the federal government to provide grants to struggling renters. However, not everyone applied for the program in time. The state stopped taking most new requests for assistance on Nov. 12, and as of Dec. 20, $1.2 billion had been spent. Another $820 million has been approved for tenant applicants, pending verification  from their landlord.

The only funds left are designated for seven specific counties (none of which are in New York City) and for households making between 80% and 120% of area median income.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has requested an additional $1 billion in federal funds for the program, but as The New York Times recently reported, New York is unlikely to get the full request.

The rental assistance program was never enough to cover the needs in low-income Mott Haven, said Manny Pardilla, an organizer with the South Bronx Tenants Movement.

Pardilla was recently contacted by a woman facing eviction, who wanted to apply for assistance. “I didn’t have the words to tell her, ‘You might not get it,’” he said.

Although New York State extended its eviction moratorium after the federal one ran out, many other states have resumed evictions. In those states, legal evictions have risen steadily and there have been reports of illegal lockouts by landlords, though there has not yet been a  tsunami of evictions, as some feared.

Many New York landlords are welcoming  the  end  of the moratorium. The Rent Stabilization Association, a city landlord group, has sued the state over the moratorium, claiming that landlords cannot effectively challenge tenants’ hardship  declarations because they  don’t have enough information about their renters’ financial situations.

“There is no looming eviction crisis in New York,” Joseph Strasburg, the group’s president, recently wrote in the New York Daily News.

Strasburg argued that the city’s right-to-counsel law — which guarantees attorneys for low-income New Yorkers — provides ample protection from eviction. He noted that prior to the pandemic, only a minority of eviction cases filed by landlords — typically around 9% — resulted in eviction.

However, tenant organizers worry about a rush to the courts. And even if landlords continue to experience their previous rate of success in court, thousands of families in The Bronx could lose their homes.

According to data from Eviction Lab, The Bronx has more pending eviction filings than any other city borough.  There have been more than 56 eviction filings per 1,000 rental units in the Bronx since the eviction moratorium began, compared to 31.8 across the city as a whole.  The city’s highest eviction rate is in zip code 10457, which includes Tremont and Mt. Hope, where there have been 86 eviction filings per 1,000 rental units.

“It’s concerning, and difficult, to fathom that these cases are going to forward at the same rate as they may have pre-pandemic,” said Legal Aid’s Tropp. “I’m hoping that the court system  does not deal with them with the same expediency as pre-pandemic.”

Much will depend on how fast cases are calendared in court. The Office of Court Administration says that it is trying to reduce foot-traffic in the courtroom by using virtual hearings and by scheduling fewer cases in person.

“We require masks, temperature checks, social distancing, and special cleaning protocols for in-person appearances,” said Lucian Chalfen, the office spokesperson.

Evictions are a key driver of homelessness. The eviction moratoriums helped to significantly reduce the city’s homeless population for the first time in years, as reflected in the number of people staying in shelters run by the Department of Homeless Services.

As the moratorium expires, Legal Aid is suing the state to reopen applications to the emergency rental assistance program.  Because tenants are protected from eviction while their applications are pending, reopening the assistance program would extend the moratorium’s protections for certain tenants, for a certain period of time.

Other tenant organizers, such as Pardilla, are calling for Hochul to cancel rent altogether for tenants facing eviction.

In the meantime, Tropp said that any tenant who receives an eviction notice should take it seriously.

“I think a lot of people still don’t think that they can get evicted, but that’s not  true,” Tropp said. “Get connected with a legal service provider, and file motions in court to stop the eviction from going forward.”

 

https://www.motthavenherald.com/2017/02/20/0426/ https://motthavenherald.com/2017/10/23/20210408/