Albany Must Act Now
Evictions resumed in New York City in November, as the laws and orders that went into effect in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic begin to expire. If the expiring state and federal limits on evictions are not renewed, tens of thousands of additional families will face losing their homes beginning January 3, in the dead of winter and during the worst health crisis this city has seen since 1918. So far the state Legislature has failed to act, but at press time there were indications that the state Senate supports extending the restrictions on residential evictions, while Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is not yet committed.
14,000 tenants already had eviction warrants against them when the city’s housing courts shut down in March, and those cases are being reactivated, with landlords seeking permission to evict the tenants as soon as the moratorium lifts. Tens of thousands of other families had eviction cases pending against them that were halted in March before a warrant was issued, and those cases too are moving forward. And with Housing Court partially re-opened, landlords are starting to bring tens of thousands of additional new cases, primarily against tenants who have been unable to pay their rent due to the COVID-induced depression.
As part of an expanded implementation of right to counsel, the city Office of Civil Justice is connecting tenants facing active eviction cases to legal-services providers, so they can be represented by a lawyer. Not surprisingly, that has been shown to make an enormous difference in whether the family remains in their home. In addition to raising defenses and claims the tenant might not have known she had, legal-service providers can help tenants get access to resources such as food stamps and rent arrears grants. Tenants can obtain this help by calling 311 or Housing Court Answers, whose number is on the court papers.
Courts began opening erratically for in-person hearings in September, but as COVID-19 cases have risen again, they began doing only video appearances, presenting all kinds of challenges to tenants and their attorneys. The clerks in Housing Court, operating with a skeleton crew to minimize the risk of COVID transmission, have been overwhelmed by the number of cases.In November, with-out notifying the clerks or Housing Court Answers, top administrative judges decided to send 20,000 tenants letters saying they had eviction cases pending against them, which they had to answer in one of three ways: either online, by telephone, or by coming to court. The problem was that many tenants lack the capacity to answer online, and the courts’ phone lines were quickly overwhelmed and unreachable for most callers. Amazingly, the letters said that tenants who came to court might not be able to get in, but that would not be an excuse for not responding. Predictably, many tenants risked their health and that of their community by going in-person to Housing Court, only to be met at the door and told to go home and “wait for the next letter.”
If the legislature does not act now to extend the eviction restrictions, the next letter many tenants may get is from a city marshal saying he is scheduling their eviction