In a last-minute session before temporary limits on evictions expired at the end of 2020, New York State on Dec. 28 enacted a moratorium on evictions until May 1 for tenants who declare COVID-related hardship.
The bill, the COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020, prohibits evicting tenants who file a form with their landlord declaring that they have suffered hardships from the pandemic such as lost income or increased expenses, or that a household member is 65 or older or has a health condition that would put them at “increased risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19” if they had to move.
Undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for government rental assistance, will get the same protection if they file the declarations.
The ban covers both evictions for nonpayment and those of tenants in non-regulated units whose leases have expired. Tenants can file the form before their landlord has made any attempt to evict them, and filing it will stop the eviction process at any point from the first demand to a final warrant of dispossession, says Met Council program director Andrea Shapiro. But for tenants who don’t file it, the moratorium only lasts until March 1, says Juan Nuñez, board chair of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.
So far, the moratorium appears to be working, at least temporarily. “There is practically nothing going on in Housing Court in terms of evictions,” says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. “The only things moving right now are what we call ‘nuisance cases.’”
Owners can still oust tenants who have not filed that form or are creating health hazards or major nuisances, and false declarations are punishable as perjury. But no borough has more than 100 such cases pending, Laurie says. Almost all were filed before the pandemic hit the city, and landlords can’t tack a nuisance claim onto a nonpayment case to evade the moratorium. If tenants facing eviction file the hardship declaration, she adds, the city’s right-to-counsel program will pay for a lawyer to represent them.
“We have seen a really positive effect,” says Allison Dentinger, an organizer for the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester. Before the law, she told Tenant/Inquilino in December, evictions were rising quickly and aggressively, On Dec. 18, police in riot gear arrested 15 people, including Assemblymember Demond Meeks (D-Rochester), while breaking up a blockade attempting to prevent the eviction of Clianda Florence-Yarde, a teacher and single mother of three children.
Some landlords have responded with harassment, such as turning off heat and hot water, Dentinger says. The lawyer for one sent letters to more than 50 tenants who’d filed hardship declarations, demanding that they submit pay stubs and bills to prove their claims — which is not required by the law.
But the Rochester tenant union is taking advantage of the lull in evictions to organize tenants around building conditions. In January, the city of Rochester filed a suit for code violations against Florence-Yarde’s landlord, who owns about 80 buildings there.
The legislation also includes similar protections for homeowners and small landlords. If they own 10 or fewer residential dwellings, they can suspend foreclosure proceedings and tax-lien sales if they file hardship declarations with their mortgage lender, another foreclosing party, or a relevant court. And it extends the Senior Citizens’ Homeowner Exemption and Disabled Homeowner Exemption for a year without requiring recipients to recertify.
Rent arrears mount
Yet the relief is only temporary, housing activists emphasize. From Rochester to Rockaway, renters who’ve lost jobs or income are running up arrears.
“What is helpful is telling people that if they fill out the form, they’re safe until May,” says Nuñez, who works as a client services liaison at POTS (Part of the Solution), a food pantry and social-services center on Webster Avenue and East 197th Street. “The next question is ‘I need help paying my rent.’”
The Bronx had by far the highest rate of eviction cases filed in the city before the pandemic. Almost 40 percent of those filed in the city in 2019 were in the borough, according to New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
The moratorium “does not deal with the back rent issue at all,” explains Laurie. Tenants who file the hardship declaration are eligible for protection under the state Tenant Safe Harbor Act, enacted last year, which says the landlord can sue them for back rent they owe, but not evict them.
That means a tenant whose rent is $1,500 and hasn’t paid any in seven months can’t be evicted — but they still owe $10,500, and next month it’s going to be $12,000. “The one thing that’s hanging over people’s heads and causing all this anxiety is the fact that they have all this debt,” says Nuñez. “Nine out of ten calls I’m getting have to do with rent arrears.”
In his Kingsbridge Heights building, he says, there are 25 or 30 tenants who “can’t pay rent at all” because they lost jobs. And rental assistance is hard to get. In a cruel twist of fate, the $600-a-week supplement to unemployment benefits enacted last year pushed many people’s incomes over the limits for the rental subsidies the state offered briefly last summer — and both programs expired a few days apart.
Housing advocates are working to find tenants who need to apply for the hardship exemptions. “We will be devoting significant resources, through our hotline and outreach canvassing, to helping tenants file hardship declarations and get the protections they deserve,” Met Council executive director Ava Farkas said after the bill was passed.
The new EvictionFreeNY.org Website, put together by the Right to Counsel Coalition, Housing Justice for All, and the tenant tech-tool group JustFix.nyc enables people to file hardship declarations online. Once they do, the site will automatically email a copy to the courts and send a copy to the landlord by certified mail. The tenant can download a PDF copy of the declaration for proof. The site is available in English and Spanish.
The declaration form is simple, says Nuñez, which is a big advantage over most government forms. But “the biggest problem we have is outreach,” he adds. “It’s very difficult to get to the most needy.” With the epidemic preventing meeting people in person, it’s much harder to help people fill out the forms, particularly the elderly, the undocumented, the sick, and the homebound.
“A lot of the folks that need it the most don’t have access to the technology, or don’t know how to use it,” he says. “How do I tell an elderly person to text me a picture of their birth certificate or their Con Ed bill?”
Getting the bill passed was “a testament to the power of tenants to organize and win, particularly in the black and brown communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” Ava Farkas said. In the two weeks before the vote, people made more than 1,000 calls to elected officials. Tenants also protested outside the homes of legislators including Senate Budget Committee chair Brian A. Benjamin (D-Manhattan); Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh (D-WFP-Manhattan); Assemblymember Erik Dilan (D-Brooklyn); and Assembly Judiciary Committee chair Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx).
“However, this moratorium is not enough,” Farkas added. “It is slated to end May 1, even though we all know that the pandemic and its effects are not magically going to end on that date. The moratorium must be extended at least until the end of 2021 to ensure tenants have time to get back on their feet.”
Now, tenant groups plan to turn their organizing energy toward the three-bill package they were pushing the state Legislature to pass last year. One bill would ban both residential and commercial evictions until a year after the state of emergency that began last March 7 is declared over. The second would cancel all rent due from residential tenants from March 7 until 90 days after the end of the crisis, and create a fund to compensate small landlords, cooperatives, affordable-housing providers, and public-housing authorities for lost income. The third would create a Housing Assets Voucher Program, a Section 8-style rent subsidy to aid low-income homeless people or those on the brink of becoming homeless.
“Once May comes around,” says Nuñez, “if you haven’t cancelled rent, you’re going to have to make the eviction moratorium permanent, or you’re going to have thousands of people being thrown in the street.”