New York State maintained a strict eviction moratorium for most of this pandemic. Many elected officials and housing advocates claim that this has prevented a cascading crisis in a state where there are so many renters in serious financial difficulties.
Even as nearly every other state or federal moratorium ended, New York’s protections were extended time and again. A statewide moratorium was only in New Mexico for this long.
New York is approaching a dangerous milestone. On Saturday, state officials are set to let the moratorium expire, making way for a long-feared rush of evictions cases that many worry will seed widespread social upheaval and strain New York’s recovery from the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, about one-quarter of the state’s households occupied by renters spent more than half their income on rent and some utilities. New York City, home to many renters, is where the problem is even more severe. Only one-third are in this category.
The pandemic only made matters worse. Since last summer, the state has received over 291,000 applications for a pandemic program to help renters. This program almost ran out of money.
“It’s a moment of a lot of uncertainty and precariousness,” said Siya Hegde, policy counsel to the civil action practice at Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit legal services group that has been representing tenants in court.
It is not known how many people may be at risk of evictions after the moratorium ends, but before the pandemic, landlords in New York City filed far more evictions than any other major American city, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Nearly 140,000 cases of eviction were filed in 2019.
Many politicians and housing groups agree the moratorium was meant to be a temporary solution during an extraordinary crisis. But, its end marks an important moment that sets the stage to a fraught political struggle.
Gov. John Kasich would face a formidable challenge if an eviction crisis occurs. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who has made housing a central part of her agenda as she prepares for a full term in November.
Many landlord groups have pressured her, many of whom have lost significant amounts of rental income due to the pandemic. They feel the moratorium is too heavy handed and easy to abuse. She has also faced searing criticism from her party’s left wing for allowing the moratorium to expire without supporting sweeping new eviction protections.
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Ms. Hochul indicated this week that she and state lawmakers were examining next steps. She and the governors of California and New Jersey sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury on Thursday, asking for more rent relief for states with high renters.
Housing advocates and elected officials worry that the end to the moratorium could have a ripple effect far beyond the housing court. This could lead to an increase in crime, homelessness and coronavirus outbreaks. Saturday also marks the end of a moratorium on foreclosures and commercial evictions.
Agustina Vélez, 41, is certain that she would have been homeless without the moratorium.
When the pandemic struck New York in 2020, she lost her job cleaning houses. Her husband lost the job of a cook. They struggled to pay the $1300 monthly rent for their Corona, Queens studio apartment, where they live together with their two sons.
Both of them have since found work, but they still owe their landlord over $8,000 He threatened to evict them at one point in the pandemic.
“I’m so afraid that one day I’ll come back and all of our belongings will be outside of our building,” Ms. Vélez said. “We live with that fear.”
Her landlord was not available to speak when she reached him by phone.
New York has many landlords who own a few properties but are not able to generate a steady income. These landlords have also faced financial pressures.
“It’s time to end the eviction moratorium and put an end to tenants skipping the rent because there are no repercussions for not paying,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents some 25,000 landlords of rent-stabilized units in the city.
Local and state officials across the country are working together to find ways to keep people inside their homes.
On Wednesday, Seattle’s mayor extended an eviction moratorium until February, in response to the recent spike in coronavirus-related cases. Last week, New Mexico’s court system announced a new pilot program to encourage landlords and tenants to tap into rent relief funds and avoid evictions.
It’s not clear what will happen in New York housing courts after the moratorium ends. After the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s eviction moratorium in August, many parts of the country saw a gradual increase in cases, though levels remained below prepandemic levels, according to a December analysis of eviction filings from the Eviction Lab.
Given the expiration of the federal moratorium, “this is a better place than I think many people would have expected,” said Peter Hepburn, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in Newark and a research fellow at the Eviction Lab.
According to multiple studies, this may be because many landlords managed to weather the pandemic by cutting expenses. Programs like the $46 billion Rent Relief Initiative have also been helpful.
However, there are reasons to believe it could be worse in New York.
The state has the nation’s highest share of renters, and New York City’s rebound has been sluggish: Its unemployment rate in November was 9 percent, more than double the national rate.
Even though applications continue to flood in, the prospects of more federal funds being available to help with rent relief seem dim. According to state officials more than 100,000 applicants could be left without any assistance.
New York City still offers strong tenant protections. New York City tenants are eligible for free representation in the housing court. A separate state law was passed during the pandemic to prevent evictions in certain cases for those who are facing financial hardship. Though the state’s rent relief program is largely tapped out, simply applying for rent relief essentially shields renters from being evicted while the application is pending.
Left-leaning Democrats are pushing the State Legislature to pass a sweeping measure known as “good cause eviction,” which would limit the reasons landlords could use to evict tenants, protecting those who cannot afford “unreasonable” rent increases.
Similar legislation failed in 2018 and 2019, and Ms. Hochul did not disclose her position.
“If nothing is done, and after the eviction moratorium expires, it is only a matter of months before New York grapples with an unprecedented eviction crisis,” dozens of state and local elected officials wrote in a letter to Ms. Hochul this week.
However, many landlords insist that they need to collect rent to pay their bills and keep their properties in good condition.
Sharon Redhead, a Brooklyn resident who owns five buildings in East Flatbush and has over 50 tenants, stated that she has lost between 30-40 percent of her rental income since the pandemic. She borrowed $50,000 to pay for heating, water, and other expenses.
Most of her tenants who owe rent have been able to agree to informal payment plans. Many tenants have been successful in applying for rent relief. But one tenant, in particular, owes more than $11,400 — a year’s worth of rent — and has refused to apply for aid.
“Housing court is the only option for people who are not cooperating,” she said.
Sofia Cerda Campero contributed reporting.
Source: NY Times