For most of the pandemic, New York State has maintained a strict moratorium on evictions, a safeguard that many elected officials and housing advocates say has prevented a cascading crisis in a state with huge numbers of tenants in difficulty.
Even though nearly all state or federal moratoriums have ended, New York’s protections have been extended time and time again. Only in New Mexico has a statewide moratorium been in place for this long.
But New York is now approaching a perilous stage. State officials are expected to let the moratorium expire on Saturday, setting the stage for a dreaded wave of eviction cases that many believe will cause widespread social upheaval and strain New York’s post-pandemic recovery. .
Before the pandemic, about a quarter of renter-occupied households in the state spent more than half of their income on rent and some utilities. In New York, where many renters live, the problem is even more acute, with a third of households in this category.
The pandemic has only made things worse. The state has received more than 291,000 applications for the pandemic rent relief program since last summer, reflecting the large number of people in arrears with rent. This program is almost out of money.
“This is a time of great uncertainty and precariousness,” said Siya Hegde, policy adviser to the civil action practice at Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit legal services group that represents tenants before tenants. courts.
It’s unclear how many people are at risk of eviction after the moratorium ends, but before the pandemic, New York City landlords filed far more evictions than any other major US city, according to the Eviction Lab. from Princeton University. Nearly 140,000 eviction files were filed in 2019.
Many politicians and housing groups agree that the moratorium was only meant to be a palliative during an extraordinary crisis. But his end marks a pivotal moment, setting the stage for a fierce political battle.
If an eviction crisis occurs, it would be a formidable challenge for Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, who has made housing a centerpiece of her platform as she prepares to seek a full term in November.
She came under pressure from many landlord groups, who lost substantial sums of rental income during the pandemic and who felt the moratorium was too burdensome and easily abused. She also faced heavy criticism from her party’s left wing for letting the moratorium expire without backing new deportation protections.
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Ms. Hochul said this week that she and state lawmakers are discussing next steps. On Thursday, she and the governors of California, New Jersey and Illinois sent a letter to the US Treasury Department calling for more rent relief in states with high numbers of renters.
Elected officials and housing advocates fear the end of the moratorium will reverberate far beyond the Housing Court, leading to increased crime, homelessness, mental health issues, coronavirus outbreaks and more . A moratorium on commercial evictions and foreclosures also ends on Saturday.
Agustina Vélez, 41, is certain she would have been homeless without the moratorium.
She lost her household job in 2020 when the pandemic hit New York. Her husband lost his job as a cook. They struggled to pay the $1,300 monthly rent for their studio apartment in Corona, Queens, where they live with their two sons.
They have since both found work, but they owe their landlord over $8,000. At some point during the pandemic, he told them he wanted to kick them out.
“I’m so scared that one day I’ll come back and all of our belongings will be outside our building,” Ms Vélez said. “We live with this fear.”
Reached by phone, its owner said he was not immediately available to speak.
New York also has many landlords with just a few properties who, without stable rental income, have faced their own financial pressures.
“It’s time to end the moratorium on evictions and put an end to tenants skipping rent because there are no repercussions for non-payment,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association. , which represents some 25,000 landlords of rent-stabilized units in the city.
State and local authorities across the country are trying to find ways to keep people at home.
On Wednesday, Seattle’s mayor extended a moratorium on evictions through mid-February, citing the recent spike in coronavirus cases. Last week, the New Mexico court system announced a new pilot program to encourage landlords and tenants to tap into rental assistance funds and avoid evictions.
It’s unclear what will happen in New York housing courts after the moratorium ends. After the Supreme Court overturned President Biden’s deportation moratorium in August, many parts of the country saw a gradual increase in cases, though levels remained below pre-pandemic levels, according to a December analysis of case files. expulsion from the expulsion laboratory.
Given the expiry of the federal moratorium, “it’s a better place than I think a lot of people would have imagined,” said Peter Hepburn, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in Newark and a researcher at the Eviction Lab.
That may be because many homeowners have managed to ride out the pandemic, in part because they cut expenses, according to multiple studies. Government relief programs, like the more than $46 billion rent relief effort, have also helped.
But there are reasons to think it could be worse in New York.
The state has the highest share of renters in the nation, and New York City’s rebound has been slow: Its unemployment rate in November was 9%, more than double the national rate.
Hopes for more federal funds to replenish the rent relief program seem dim, even as requests continue to pour in. State officials estimate that more than 100,000 candidates could be left without help.
But New York still offers strong tenant protections, including free representation in Housing Court for New York tenants. A separate state law passed during the pandemic prevents evictions in certain cases for people facing financial hardship. Although the state’s rent relief program is largely exhausted, simply applying for rent relief essentially protects tenants from being evicted while the application is pending.
Left-leaning Democrats are pushing the state Legislature to pass a sweeping measure known as “eviction for cause,” which would limit the reasons landlords could use to evict tenants, protecting those who cannot allow “unreasonable” rent increases.
Similar legislation failed last year and in 2019, and Ms Hochul has not disclosed her position.
“If nothing is done, and after the eviction moratorium expires, it’s only a matter of months before New York is in the grip of an unprecedented eviction crisis,” the officials said. officials in the letter to the federal government.
But many landlords say they need to start collecting rent to pay their own bills and maintain their properties.
Sharon Redhead, who owns five buildings in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and has more than 50 tenants, said she’s lost about 30-40% of rental income during the pandemic. She used a $50,000 loan to help pay for heat, water, maintenance and other expenses.
She has arranged informal payment plans with most of her tenants who owe rent. Several have successfully applied for rent relief. But one tenant, in particular, owes more than $11,400 – the equivalent of a year’s rent – and has refused to apply for help.
“Housing court is the only option for people who are uncooperative,” she said.
Sofia Cerda Campero contributed reporting.