Opinion: New York’s answer to the eviction crisis triggered by COVID-19 needs a successor
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is set to close its application process Jan. 20, helped renters and landlords alike.
It has been a year since the statewide eviction moratorium ended in January 2022, and though the lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still with us, renters are about to lose another crucial protection.
New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program is set to close its application process on Jan. 20, 2023. This program has been a much-needed lifeline to renters, assisting with the rental debt of over 22,000 tenants across New York. The program serves as an eviction protection, as applicants are protected by a stay that pauses tenants’ eviction proceedings until the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance makes a decision on their application. An active stay not only prevents evictions, but postpones court dates, alleviating the strain on judicial resources. The program’s closure comes after months of extensions in hopes of renewed funding. With housing attorneys overwhelmed by the rate and number of eviction cases being pushed through court, and New York City’s homeless shelters under historic strain, the sunsetting of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program will create a gap in tenant protections that governments should be eager to fill.
The pandemic shattered business-as-usual in every facet of public and private life, leading activists and politicians to put forward bold proposals to match the scale of the crises at hand. Government responded to public pressure by expanding unemployment insurance and other benefits, sending out stimulus checks and pausing payments on mortgages and student debt. Struggling tenants pushed for – and won – exceptional interventions including a moratorium on evictions and large-scale funding for payment of rental debt.
While these measures were controversial, it is crucial for New York’s policymakers and housing advocates to remember that they worked and prevented even greater numbers of New Yorkers becoming homeless or housing insecure. Recognizing the value of safe and stable housing in reducing exposure to diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a nationwide ban on evictions in 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19. Early research has supported their actions, with multiple studies showing increased rates of COVID-19 exposure and deaths in states where eviction moratoriums were lifted. Moreover, even before the pandemic, studies of the impacts of eviction have found a strong link between eviction and poor health outcomes, including substance abuse, more frequent need for emergency care and higher mortality.
New York provided even stronger protections in the Tenant Safe Harbor Act of 2020, which delayed or prevented evictions for millions of tenants who suffered coronavirus-related hardships. The state extended these protections multiple times while fighting both the deadly virus and the crises that spread in its wake, with the battle to control the pandemic raging alongside battles for racial, social and economic justice. Each potential expiration of protections brought political conflict over renewal, but each successful extension increased the safety and security of New Yorkers who would otherwise face the dire conditions associated with eviction and resulting debt judgments.
At Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, we served thousands of clients who faced financial hardships during the early months of the pandemic. These setbacks triggered chain reactions that leave many of our clients vulnerable to this day. Loss of income paired with increased child care and medical expenses led tenants to exhaust what savings they had, taking away not only their means of paying rent but their ability to endure the costs of moving. While many hundreds of these clients received a life raft in the form of Emergency Rental Assistance Program assistance, many more remain on a thin edge of stability. Now, the recent spikes in the cost of living are pushing many families into deeper debt, with households forced to pick between increasingly expensive groceries and payment of rent or other bills.
While many of the emergency protections designed to address COVID-19 have lapsed, the human impact of the pandemic remains an urgent crisis. This crisis, which already overlapped with other crises and systemic inequities that preceded COVID-19, is now set to be amplified by further economic shocks. Rather than cutting costs and winding down protections, elected officials should push for a renewed commitment to the safety and stability of New Yorkers.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program kept renters in their homes, helped landlords make their mortgage payments and saved the scarce resources of our court system. It worked before, and it can work again. Whether New York extends the current program or creates another system that protects and assists renters, the closure of the program’s application signals the opening of new opportunities for bold action. With courage and conviction, we can weather this crisis and the next, together.
Zac Hale is a staff attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.
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