Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

During pandemic NYC tenants in limbo

Photo by @cestchristine via Twenty20

On most days, the line at Bronx Housing Court stretches around the block. The procession extends beyond the boxy gray courthouse, down the Grand Concourse and occasionally winds around the corner onto E 166th street.

“You’d think people are lined up to go to a really popular concert or something,” said Julia McNally, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society. In reality, the people on line are struggling tenants, many of them facing the hovering threat of eviction.

Inside the cramped courthouse, tenants make their way through crowded hallways cluttered with baby carriages, walkers, and wheelchairs, as they settle in for what is often a grueling day in a system that has become known to attorneys like McNally as New York City’s “eviction mill.” At security, tenants are told to give up any food and water they have on hand and funneled into wide hallways to await their time slot. There is no child care available at the Bronx housing court so wailing babies and impatient toddlers often accompany their anxious parents.

But today, the stressful hustle and bustle of housing court has been traded in for silence. There is no line outside or inside housing court, in the Bronx or in any other New York City borough. On March 13, as coronavirus continued to spread throughout the city, a coalition of New York’s largest landlords announced a voluntary 90-day stay on evictions. Then, two days later, New York courts made it official, putting an eviction moratorium into effect indefinitely, with Governor Andrew Cuomo later specifying that it would last at least 90 days. Non-essential court employees were told to stay home. Housing court went dark.

Throughout the city’s five boroughs, tenants are waiting in limbo, anxious to see how the coronavirus crisis will unfold and how it will impact people who have  only recently stopped paying rent and those already in eviction proceedings. New York’s City Council reported that tenants in more than 19,000 New York City apartments were evicted during the 2018 calendar year. By the end of 2020, that number could look positively minuscule.

With many tenants out of work and rent strike movements growing, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find any kind of historical precedent for the current crisis.

“This pandemic is unique, in terms of its economic impact,” said Céline Gounder, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “So it’s going to have an impact in terms of evictions in a way that, frankly, most of the others have not. You haven’t seen the world economy destroyed by a pandemic like this before.”

For one of New York’s busiest courts, it has been a considerable adjustment. As of 2018, the City Council reported that the Bronx had the highest eviction rate of any New York City borough, with 1 eviction for every 79 units in the county. Eviction petitions in the borough have steadily risen even as the median household income has remained stagnant, skyrocketing to more than 69,000 in 2017 – 39 percent of the city’s total. The state’s eviction moratorium means those petitions are effectively on pause for at least the next three months – and that tenants can continue to withhold rent for as long as the moratorium proceeds. As the first day of April drew closer, landlords and real estate experts prepared for as many as 40% of tenants to skip their rent payments.

“This rent moratorium has definitely made it very difficult both financially and emotionally,” said Richard St. Paul, director of the New York Small Home Owners Association, which represent small landlords in the city. “These small home owners depend on the income to provide for their families and also take care of their homes.”

With a rent cancellation bill stalled in the state legislature, skipping rent could prove a temporary solution to a widespread problem for tenants. As current legislation stands, tenants cannot currently be evicted for failing to pay rent. But once the state’s eviction freeze ends, the courts may well have to deal with a surge in holdover evictions, including both the thousands that were being processed when the freeze went into place, and potentially thousands more thrown into the system as out-of-work tenants delay rent payments during the pandemic.

A study from the non-profit Community Service Society found that only 30% of New Yorkers have more than $1,000 saved in preparation for an emergency. With the country’s unemployment rate rising as high as 13 percent, those numbers could be a recipe for disaster.

For Mary O’Leary, who belongs to a Brooklyn tenants association, this hypothetical precarious financial situation is all too real. “I am able to pay back rent currently,” she said, “but that’s because I haven’t gotten sick. Say I do get COVID-19. To pay those medical expenses, I will no longer be able to pay rent.”

Tenants at 1234 Pacific Street in Brooklyn are staging a rent strike to press landlords to reduce rent during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo provided by Mary O’Leary.

In April, O’Leary joined two-thirds of her building’s residents in a rent strike, refusing to pay rent until landlords meet a set of demands, including cutting rent in half for tenants for the duration of the crisis and potentially removing the requirement in full for tenants who have lost work as a result of the pandemic. It’s a choice she made partially to support neighbors in more precarious positions, and partially to make sure she’ll be protected in the future, as the crisis continues.

McNally and her fellow tenants are bracing for their landlord to take them to court if the moratorium ends and rent cancellation legislation has not been passed. But if a backup in eviction proceedings leads to a three-lane pileup once the current crisis is resolved, this already-complicated situation may become virtually impossible to navigate.

Set foot in Housing Court and you’ll often hear a chorus of names being called by landlords’ attorneys, struggling to settle with the tenants they’ve been tasked to find. After discussing the possibility of reaching a settlement, attorneys and tenants will go before a court attorney, who may in turn encourage a settlement. Only then does the tenant appear before a judge.

In a normal time, this standard level of institutional crowding means speed is king in Housing Court. For landlords who may be in the process of evicting multiple tenants, that speed is an asset. For tenants, it often means settling with landlords without a chance to find a lawyer,  said McNally, the Legal Aid attorney.

Tenants have only recently gained the right to counsel. And since the introduction of the right to counsel model in 2017, which was part of broad housing reform legislation, the cacophony in the bustling court has only grown louder. When McNally, now a supervising attorney at Legal Aid who works in Queens, enters the courthouse, her first priority is to find the tenant she is representing. “We just go into the courtrooms and yell out the tenants’ names to try to make that connection with them,” she said. Courtrooms scattered across three floors mean attorneys have to run back and forth as the day progresses.

Along with Housing Court reform came a movement towards staggered appointment times, at 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30. As the next appointment time closed in, McNally described a frantic rush to dispose of earlier cases, with court attorneys yelling out every name on their list even as tenants’ and landlords’ attorneys are doing the same – all in the same courtroom where a judge is hearing cases at the same time.

These changes aren’t the only piece of legislation in New York’s movement towards housing reform. In June 2019, the newly-elected Democratic majority in the New York State Senate passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act.

For activists in pursuit of more affordable housing in cities like New York, the new law instituted important changes. It placed limits on how much rent landlords can recover after renovating or otherwise improving a building, as well as limits on security deposits and an attempted limit on broker’s fees, which is currently in arbitration.

Most significantly, the law made it easier for tenants to avoid huge rent increases between lease renewals. Before the Tenant Protection Act, landlords were able to charge tenants a “preferential rent,” somewhere below the legal regulated limit, before raising the rent up to that limit when the tenant renewed their lease. The 2019 law restricted this ability.

“Before the HSTPA, landlords could charge tenants below what the legal regulated rent of the unit was, but then at lease renewal could raise that up to the legal regulated rent, even if that represented a dramatic rent increase for the tenant,” said Charles McNally, who serves as communications director at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy. (He also happens to be the husband of McNally, the Legal Aid lawyer.)  “Now, if a landlord offers a preferential rent, the tenant is entitled to a rent increase based on that preferential rent, not on whatever the legal regulated rent is, even if it’s higher.”

Some landlords say these new restrictions are making it difficult to keep buildings in order. A lawsuit filed by the Buildings and Realty Institute of Westchester in the February following the law’s passage charged that the bill, which changed the existing Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974, created new hardships for landlords.

St. Paul of  the Small Home Owners Association agreed.

“The new [Tenant Protection Act] of 2019 already placed a number of limitations on landlords’ ability to deal with tenants who are not paying rent,” he said. “This rent moratorium has added more financial pressure….that they already had to bear as a result of the change in law.”

But according to Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, the laws still leave landlords with the upper hand. “What we have right now is a lot of folks fac[ing] retaliatory evictions, or consequences for complaining about living conditions, or landlords simply raise the rent because they want someone out,” Weaver said.

Now, Housing Justice for All is fighting for a rent freeze, as well as rent, mortgage, and utility suspension for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Housing Justice for All is also continuing to push for a good-cause eviction provision, which would prevent landlords from evicting tenants for retaliatory or frivolous reasons.  “A good cause eviction would give you the right to renew your lease with a limited rent increase that covers the landlord’s costs and allows a modest profit but doesn’t allow for price-gouging,” Weaver said.

A good cause eviction provision was originally included in the Tenant Protection Act, championed by freshman State Senator Julia Salazar, but it failed to pass in June. Now, tenants are facing a world that feels primed for exactly the concerns Weaver raised, with landlords pushing renters out of homes over concerns that may not take the current global crisis into account.

Within moments, the Zoom chat was blowing up. It was a recent weekday evening and a local city council member was hosting a virtual town hall on housing issues during the pandemic, and tenants had lots and lots of questions.

“What is the impact of notice of late payment for future leases and credit?” read one text.

“How do I go about breaking my lease?” said another.

The meeting’s host, Michael Grinthal of TakeRoot Justice, had to ask attendants to limit their questions until the end of the Zoom call. There was a lot to get to first.

In the past, Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s office had held a housing clinic in person, on the first Wednesday of every month. Tenants in the councilwoman’s district on the Upper West Side could attend and raise questions about their rent, about conflicts with landlords, and about housing policy in general. In New York, housing can be a sticking point in even the best of times, and meetings like this one are a necessity for tenants throughout the five boroughs.

But now, with in-person gatherings restricted, the housing clinic has moved online. “We’re improvising, just like everyone else,” Councilwoman Rosenthal said in her introduction.

“We’re going to try to reach as many questions as we can,”  Grinthal said. “I know there’s a lot of people and there’s a lot of things that people want to know, so we may not get to every question.”

Across the occasionally scratchy connection of Zoom’s video chat, lawyers from TakeRoot Justice and the Goddard Riverside Law Project described the changes tenants would face with Housing Court’s closing.

Some answers were simple. Evictions remain restricted in New York, except in cases where a landlord can prove a tenant is an immediate physical threat.

Others were more complex. Grinthal noted that as part of the eviction moratorium, the governor had ordered all sheriffs and marshals to cease carrying out evictions.

“It is illegal, and it always has been illegal, even before this crisis, for a landlord to evict somebody without using a marshal or a sheriff,” Grinthal said. “[That’s] what we call a ‘self-help eviction,’ where a landlord locks somebody out on their own.”

In cases where a tenant has been in residence for more than 30 days, such a situation is indeed illegal, and New York City police officers are trained specifically regarding how to handle them. But that hasn’t stopped some landlords from taking advantage of the crisis to change apartments’ locks, according to a Buzzfeed News report.

“We are definitely concerned that more landlords are going to be tempted to resort to illegal lock-outs, now that they cannot use marshals or sheriffs to do legal evictions,” Grinthal said.

In such cases, Grinthal noted that Housing Court remains open and available to assist tenants in emergency situations. Tenants must simply file a claim reporting an illegal lockout.

But for eviction cases already in progress when the state’s eviction moratorium came through, tenants remain in limbo – granted a brief reprieve, but unsure of what the future may hold. Tenants who have been ordered to leave  their apartments have seen their cases frozen. Landlords may not move to evict them until the moratorium has been lifted.

Grinthal said some of those tenants who had retained legal services may hear from judges about the possibility of settling with their landlords, but remote court proceedings will not extend to eviction cases for as long as the moratorium remains in effect.

On April 6, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks released a statement announcing that state courts would resume operations remotely, allowing essential and emergency court operations to proceed. Landlords pounced, hoping that the memo might provide an opportunity to continue hearing existing eviction cases.

Tenants’ attorneys disagreed, and after a few days, so did the courts. Housing Court Supervising Judge Jean Schneider penned a letter confirming that eviction cases would not proceed remotely. “The court system’s administrative orders and the governor’s emergency orders continue to stay all eviction proceedings and bar all evictions statewide,” Schneider wrote. “Within this major limitation, we are looking for ways to move cases along where we can.”

When the crisis does come to an end, tenants and landlords alike are preparing for what State Senator Brad Hoylman called a potential “tidal wave” of evictions. In early April, Hoylman and fellow state representatives Liz Krueger and Jeffrey Dinowitz introduced the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent during the eviction moratorium and for six months after it ends. Another bill, from State Senator Michael Gianaris, would cancel rent for 90 days following the act’s passage.

Housing Justice for All has voiced concerns with Hoylman’s bill, claiming that its allowance of “money judgements” for landlords essentially amounts to a form of debt collection. “Basically, a money judgement says that while you can’t be evicted, your landlord could still take you to Housing Court,” Weaver said.

But it will still take some time for any tenants to head back to Housing Court. Back in Councilwoman Rosenthal’s remote housing clinic, Grinthal warned that the courts are unlikely to reopen at full operating capacity. “What will happen when the courts reopen is an excellent question,” he said. “It’s very unlikely that the courts will just suddenly one day be completely open for business and everything will go forward, because the courts themselves are going to take some time to phase back in and get things going again.”

St. Paul, who represents small landlords, sees the situation concluding in much the same way it did before the crisis began. “It’s going to be resolved with a lot of negotiation that already takes place in the courts now, where most cases are negotiated with a settlement, versus going to a trial,” he said. “What we’ll see right now is that there will be a huge uptick in people…looking for money rather than still seeking evictions, because it’s so difficult to evict a tenant based on…the fact that they haven’t paid rent.”

To Weaver and her colleagues at Housing Justice for All, the situation remains dire, for tenants and landlords alike, and clearly requires immediate attention.

“We’re trying to get the governor to cancel rent,” Weaver said. “We want a hardship fund for small landlords, but the reality is that we think the economy’s going to be suffering for long after COVID-19’s public health crisis has receded, so we really need some longer-term intervention.”

John DiLillo  is an NYU undergraduate journalism student in Prof. Rachel Swarns’ Advanced Reporting: Law & Order

 


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