How COVID-19 has highlighted housing issues

Excelsior unpacks the tenants’ rights movement
Excelsior unpacks the tenants’ rights movement
Alex Law/City & State
Excelsior unpacks the tenants’ rights movement

How COVID-19 has highlighted housing issues

Understanding the tenants’ rights movement.
February 11, 2021

Evictions have been on hold for a year. Now what?

When March begins, it will be one year since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in New York and turned the state on its head.

Businesses were closed, tourists canceled their trips to the Big Apple and the state’s economy ground to a halt. This left many of the state’s residents jobless and unable to pay their rent. Tenants’ rights advocates quickly mobilized and called on the state to enact an eviction moratorium (passed!) and to create a relief fund for public and subsidized housing (not yet created).

In mid-March last year, the state’s housing court suspended all eviction proceedings for 90 days. Soon after, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that no one in the state could be evicted until June 20. And in April, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, sponsored by state Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, was passed to ensure that tenants who experienced coronavirus-related financial hardship could not be evicted throughout the course of the pandemic. The suspension of eviction proceedings was renewed through the end of 2020 as the virus showed no sign of dissipating.

During the state Legislature’s special session at the end of 2020, a sweeping eviction moratorium was passed to prevent evictions as well as foreclosures due to COVID-19 related economic hardships until May 1, 2021. However, those protections are not automatically provided to tenants. Individuals must submit a “Declaration of Hardship,” either to their landlord or to the housing court in their borough if there’s already a court proceeding in progress. However, many undocumented immigrants living in New York may not be able to gain access to such hardship programs, as they may not have documentation required, such as proof of income.

Eviction freezes have allowed tenants who are unable to pay their rent to continue living in their homes, however, there remains an expectation that they will have to pay off what they owe once the moratorium has been lifted or face the possibility of an eviction. Housing advocates have been calling attention to the lack of clarity over what will happen once the moratorium ends and warn that there will be an enormous wave of evictions. “The kind of massive evictions that we could be looking at given the number of people who have not been able to pay their rent is pretty horrifying,” Judith Goldiner, head of Legal Aid Society’s civil law reform unit, told The New York Times in December.

Now, advocates are hoping to have various proposals passed at the state level to ensure that tenants continue to remain protected from eviction and accumulating rental debt.

By the numbers

COVID-19’s impact on jobs and housing

  • 122,926: The number of homeless men, women and children slept in New York City’s shelter system at one point during the city’s 2020 fiscal year
  • 200,000: The number of eviction cases filed before March 17, 2020, and were pending in New York City Housing Court, as of December
  • 1 million: The number of jobs were lost in New York in 2020
  • 1.2 million: The number of households are facing eviction throughout the state
  • More than $2 billion: The estimated amount of rent owed by New York City tenants

A micro-explainer

How do evictions work?

Evictions can happen for a number of reasons in New York, including violating a lease agreement and not paying rent. However, before an eviction can happen, landlords need to terminate the tenant’s lease by providing them with a written notice explaining why they want to do so and providing them with a deadline for when they want to end their lease. Should this prove unsuccessful, landlords must then file an eviction lawsuit to have a tenant physically removed from their home. It is illegal for any landlord to remove a tenant until after they have won their eviction lawsuit, no matter the circumstance.

Housing advocates have also been highlighting how those most at risk of losing their homes are Black and Latino tenants. Even before the pandemic began, in New York City Latinos were the most likely group to be threatened with an eviction, followed by Black, white and Asian renters. And majority-Black and majority-Latino areas experienced the highest rates of evictions between 2017 and 2019.

Evictions are cited as causes for mental health issues and financial instability. Data has indicated that those who face eviction are also much more likely to face mental health struggles and end up experiencing homelessness. Evictions can also have a serious impact on a child’s mental well-being and academic aptitude.

Rent relief, tenant protections and vouchers

The legislation being requested by housing advocates

  • State Sen. Julia Salazar has proposed a bill to cancel rental debt through the remainder of the pandemic and form a rent relief program for landlords, in an effort to place the burden to sign up for relief on landlords instead of tenants. “The vast majority of the time, tenants have less resources in order to apply for that relief than their property owners do,” Salazar said. “Putting the burden on tenants to apply has been a problem with existing and previously existing voucher programs actually being effectively implemented.”
  • Salazar also introduced a bill that hopes to instill “good cause” eviction practices, which means that landlords would have to provide their tenants with first right of refusal once their lease is up – meaning they would decide whether or not they want to renew their lease first – and would also limit the amount that landlords would be able to increase rent.
  • State Sen. Brian Kavanagh introduced legislation in July, which is still pending, aimed at creating a more robust housing voucher program that tenants struggling to pay their rent could apply for and receive financial assistance.
  • State Sen. Zellnor Myrie sponsored the Emergency Housing Stability and Tenant Displacement Prevention Act, which seeks to ban evictions and the introduction of new eviction cases for a year after COVID-19 emergency restrictions end.

Where is the affordable housing?

NYC’s homelessness crisis

Despite the ambitious affordable housing plan that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled in 2014, many housing advocates have criticized the mayor for not adequately factoring homelessness into his plan. The de Blasio administration has financed the construction or preservation of 165,590 housing units across the city that were meant to be more affordable, but housing experts said those units remain out of the price range of many New Yorkers. In a report by the Community Service Society, which analyzed Department of Housing Preservation and Development data, only 35% of units built by nonprofit developers between 2014 and 2018 were intended for extremely low-income New Yorkers. The current lack of affordable housing for low-income residents has been tied to the rise in homelessness across the five boroughs.

Housing rights advocates are hoping that an influx of permanent housing affordable to low-income New Yorkers could help diffuse the current crisis, as sending individuals to homeless shelters makes it more difficult for them to secure permanent housing. “The vacancy rate for apartments for the lowest income New Yorkers is below 1%, so the likelihood of finding a comparable unit even if you had the money is low,” Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, told Politico New York in June. “They don’t have savings to rely on, they don’t have that cushion.”

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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