When New York City’s restaurant scene shuttered in March, Álvaro Pardo and his wife both lost their jobs as waiters. At the same time, New York State issued an eviction moratorium to protect renters. But without legal work authorization, access to state support or a predictable income, Pardo started searching for work every day and taking whatever came: cleaning, demolition, construction; even COVID disinfection.
In order to “avoid problems” with the owner of his family’s rented semi-basement apartment, “always, before buying food or anything else, the first thing we try to do is to pay as much rent as possible,” Pardo said.
Pardo, who moved to the U.S. from Colombia, lives with his wife and two sons. Since losing his job he has only been able to pay close to half of his monthly rent of $1950, knowing he will still owe the rest. So when his landlord told him in August that rent would now be $100 more per month, the father of two resisted. But later, when Pardo contacted his landlord about a flooded ceiling and a gas leak in the stove, he would just ask about the rent money.
“In the end, he’s pressuring me, telling me that if I can’t pay more, then I need to leave,” Pardo said. “And, well, right now I have nowhere to go, no way to get the rest of the money.”
Pardo knows of others from his restaurant in a similar situation: indebted to their landlords after their livelihoods vanished. And these workers are far from alone.
COVID-impacted tenants in the state of New York will owe between $2.5 and $3.4 billion in back-rent by January 2021, with over 800,000 households at risk of eviction, a report from the advisory firm Stout predicted. Landlords are still allowed to file complaints in Housing Court to start the eviction process, even if their tenant lost income due to COVID.
Recently-issued housing court documents, provided to Documented by our readers, show that some New York renters are now receiving those initial documents for nonpayment eviction cases, in spite of the pandemic and the eviction moratorium that has been in place since March.
Changes to Eviction Rules
According to state-level data obtained from the NYU Furman Center, over 16,000 private eviction filings were entered in the 120 days since June 20, when the housing courts started accepting filings again. The diverse, immigrant-heavy Corona, Queens has the most filings according to its zip code area. That single neighborhood had filings against 3.2% of its private rental units, 669 in total – up from 484 in the same period last year. Corona does not typically top the eviction filing charts. It was also one of the New York City neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic.
The rest of the legal processes for these cases, including default judgments, court hearings, and legal evictions themselves, have been trickling back more slowly.
In New York City, no legal evictions have been executed yet this fall by marshals in the five boroughs, according to a spokesperson from the Department of Investigations. But illegal evictions, when a landlord removes a tenant without the requisite court order, are harder to track.
Opening the Courts
“Pre-October 1st, no eviction was allowed whatsoever,” said Rebecca Garrard, Campaigns Manager for Housing Justice with Citizen Action. “We’re in a gray area now.”
In her role as a statewide tenant advocate, Garrard has seen an increase in illegal evictions since October, now that other rules are shifting. In one recent case in Kingston, a landlord locked out an undocumented tenant and her two children under the age of five.
Garrard said the woman went public with her story, and eventually the landlord let her back in – but she decided to move away anyways. “People don’t want to stay in a place where a landlord has been so abusive,” Garrard said. “The challenge of that is that the landlord ultimately wins.”
A lockout without a court order is always illegal in New York, even for tenants who have a spoken agreement or a month-to-month lease. But this month, other non-emergency housing court functions have been creaking back to life.
In a public hearing for the state senate this past August, an impassioned housing court judge went off-script.
“The prior structure has been obliterated,” Justice Daniele Chinea told the senate from a webcam, her background flashing the brown wood paneling typical of New York’s courtrooms. “What are the parameters for deciding whose tragedy is worse?”
As President of the Housing Court Judges Association, she described a “likely scenario” in the courtrooms of her 50 judges statewide. A landlord makes a motion to execute on one of the 14,500 warrants of eviction which were on hold due to COVID. The hypothetical tenant, who had already been facing potential eviction for nonpayment before the pandemic, now lost a job or a loved one and was much farther behind on rent. The landlord faced mounting debt and no way to know when or how they would get their money back.
“As a judge,” Chinea continued, “how can I weigh this personal tragedy against an ever-mounting, unsecured debt obligation being forced upon the landlord?”
Richard St. Paul, the Executive Director of the New York City Small Homeowners Association, said that the unpaid rent is hard on small landlords. While the vast majority of New Yorkers rent from multi-property magnates, the city is also home to tens of thousands of property owners who lease out one to five units in buildings like the one where Pardo lives.
“Small homeowners are having trouble paying their bills,” St. Paul said. He explained that “the margins are much slimmer” for them – where a larger owner in the city may only count on 60 or 70 percent occupancy to turn a profit, the small landlords he works with “need 100 percent of the tenants to pay rent.”
Two months after Judge Chinea’s speech for the legislature, the Chief Administrative Judge of New York issued a memo to his courts.
“Effective October 12, 2020, alI residential eviction matters – nonpayment and holdover, without regard to the date of commencement – may resume statewide,” Lawrence K. Marks wrote, “with certain important caveats.”
Tenants usually have to respond to the court within days after their landlord files a complaint asking to evict them for nonpayment. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stopped that clock back in March, suspending “any specific time limit” for these steps and protecting any tenant who ignored or missed a legal notice during the pandemic from being evicted by default. But this policy ended on November 3, and tenants with already-pending paperwork were given a new 60 day grace period to reply.
Legal Services NYC’s Director of Litigation, Edward Josephson, said the grace period seemed reasonable as long as tenants know the clock is now ticking. So far, only a handful of those with cases filed against them since June have responded. “If they don’t know, it doesn’t matter how many days it is,” Josephson said.
Nakeeb Siddique, the Director of Housing for Legal Aid’s Brooklyn office, worries that tenants who were told earlier in the pandemic that they didn’t have to respond may fall through the cracks. Given that courtrooms are now mostly online, he’s especially wary for those with language and technology barriers.
Once they respond, tenants do have the so-called eviction moratorium to fall back on. No one can be evicted for failing to pay rent during COVID if they can prove financial loss during the pandemic, according to the state legislature’s Tenant Safe Harbor Act, extended by Governor Cuomo until the end of the year, and the national eviction moratorium by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but renters are tasked with proving income loss.
“It is very much the burden of the tenant to produce documents showing that they lost income as a result of the pandemic,” Siddique said. “It can be confusing. The message that many people might get is that there’s no way I can get evicted through December 31st, but that’s actually not correct.”
Confusing for Everyone
Since March, the tenant hotline run by the NYC-based Metropolitan Council on Housing has been ringing off the hook.
Their data shows that between April and August 2020, the volunteer-run center received over twice as many calls as last year. Callers have detailed an increased number of threats, and renters have called with concerns that if they miss rent one day, they could be homeless the next. “That’s a really common misconception,” hotline coordinator Kate Ehrenberg said.
Antonio Garcia, Director of the Preserving Housing program for Catholic Charities of New York, explained that all tenants – even the undocumented – can avail themselves of the COVID-specific defenses that the eviction moratorium offers, and cannot be evicted without a court order.
“What is more typical to happen to an undocumented person is that even though they have legal protections, oftentimes the landlords – and I’m talking about unscrupulous landlords, not all landlords – they start harassing the family because they know they’re undocumented,” Garcia said. “They want their money.”
One More Reason to Worry
Lisma Alegría lives on Long Island with her husband, four children, and one grandson. When the whole family caught COVID in the spring, her husband lost his job in construction. Ever since, he has worked whatever jobs he can find and has paid almost everything he earns towards their mounting rent debt.
But now, her landlord told the family that if they cannot pay their back rent, they have to leave, she said.
“She came to threaten us that she’d throw us out, since we told her we were sick and fell behind,” Alegría said. The mother of four explained that her landlord doesn’t believe the family is short on money, even though they have been accepting food from soup kitchens. And she has told the tenants that she herself is worried about losing the three-unit building if she doesn’t catch up on mortgage payments.
“She told us that the eviction moratorium they’ve announced is not for Long Island, that they’re only for the City. She said that supposedly here she can kick us out whenever she wants, she just has to decide and they would come to evict us,” Alegría said. Her landlord’s assertion is false.
Alegría said her landlord has regularly cut off the family’s hot water, claiming it’s because they haven’t paid enough rent. She has gotten used to stove-heating water for baths, but the fear of eviction has been particularly hard.
“You live with this stress, not knowing if she will come with a letter, if she can really kick you out of the house or not,” Alegría said. “The only thing we try not to do is to show the children that there are issues.”
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