Opposition Grows to Return of ‘Business as Usual’ When They Reopen
Evictions in New York are currently on hold through June 19, but after that the picture for many thousands of tenants is very uncertain. On May 7, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a confusing Executive Order which appears to extend the moratorium through August 18 for some– but not all– cases. The May 7 order provides that evictions for nonpayment of rent will remain on hold only for those tenants who are eligible for unemployment benefits or can otherwise prove that they are “facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. Cuomo’s order does not say how this will be determined, but it seems clear that even for those tenants who are covered, they will have to go in person to housing court in violation of public health guidelines and attempt to convince a judge that they fall into a protected category.
Since no new cases can currently be commenced, and no defaults are being taking on cases that were started before the courts shut down in March, the people facing imminent eviction when the blanket moratorium ends of June 19 are those who already had a judgment against them at the time courts shut down, either for nonpayment of rent or because their tenancy had expired or been terminated and they were “holding over”.
Meanwhile, Housing Courts remain closed for all but not-essential matters, and it is not clear when they will reopen their doors, with estimates ranging from mid-May to August or September. Equally unclear is whether things will return to “business as usual” when they do.
The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition quickly denounced Cuomo’s order as inadequate, demanding that all evictions remain suspended, and that that rent arrears accruing during the pandemic be canceled. “Allowing evictions during a public health crisis and sending people into overcrowded and unsafe homeless shelters makes no sense. We urge the governor to rethink this shameful policy and ensure that people can continue to shelter in place in their homes,” said Judith Goldiner, Attorney in Charge of The Legal Aid Society’s civil law reform unit.
Sources in the court system have indicated that Cuomo may soon issue a further order clarifying and expanding the eviction halt. It is also possible that the state legislature will go back into session, probably remotely, to pass legislation to address the crisis.
Back on March 15, after intense pressure from tenants and progressive allies, New York State Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks ordered all evictions temporarily suspended as a result of the emerging public health emergency presented by Covid-19 . The moratorium was initially only through mid-April, but was then extended through June 19.
Judge Marks also ordered all courts in the state closed as of March 16 to protect the health of litigants and court employees during the COVID-19 epidemic, except for emergency cases involving conditions threatening tenants’ health or safety, or cases where tenants have been illegally locked out by their landlords or improperly evicted by city marshals. Housing Courts have been running with one judge in each borough hearing these emergency cases, with parties encouraged to appear remotely by Skype or telephone. Tenants who call 311 are connected with a legal services provider, and income and other restrictions have been relaxed. By most accounts, that system is working fairly well, with tenants able to obtain orders that landlords correct hazardous conditions or allow them to return home.
While the courts are closed, landlords are unable to start new eviction cases “until further notice.” All cases which were scheduled on or after March 16 have been postponed. Court administrators have been trying to set up novel mechanisms for pending non-emergency nonpayment and holdover cases to move forward, but advocates and legal service providers have raised many practical objections at a time when they cannot meet with their clients and, in many cases, tenants are unable to appear in court either in person or through electronic means.
With tens of thousands of tenants in New York City unable to work or pay their rent, landlord attorneys will be ready to file new eviction cases the minute the doors open. Tenants, on the other hand, are demanding that Albany cancel rent obligations for the duration of the health and economic crisis. When the courts do reopen, there will be a huge docket of old and new cases that will strain their resources as never before.
Business As Usual?
A more important question is how the courts will respond to this unprecedented crisis.
New York City Housing Court, part of the city’s civil courts, was created in 1973, ostensibly for the purpose of enforcing the city’s housing code enforcement. Evictions were only one of the nine types of cases to be heard in it. Nevertheless, Housing Court from its inception has been an eviction mill, with tens of thousands of families evicted every year, mostly without being represented by a lawyer, while millions of code violations are rarely addressed. While the number of evictions has declined significantly, due to the phase-in of a right to legal representation for low-income tenants, stronger eviction protections under the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, and a sharp increase in city grants to pay rent arrears, almost 17,000 households were evicted in 2019.
Met Council and other allies have been calling for changes in Housing Court for decades. In 2017, the Right to Counsel NYC coalition won legislation to provide lawyers to all low-income tenants facing eviction, to be phased in over five years.
But lawyers cannot solve the two main underlying problems: First, many people’s incomes are insufficient to pay rents which have risen astronomically, to the point where a majority of tenants cannot afford their rents. Second, hundreds of thousands of tenants are living in unregulated apartments and can be evicted without having done anything wrong. Met Council and the rest of the Upstate/Downstate Tenant Alliance are calling for a statewide “good cause” eviction law which would ban evictions unless the tenant has seriously violated their lease. This was a major demand when the rent laws were renewed last June, but was not included in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. It remains at the top of the list of our demands in Albany.
If the eviction moratorium ends before rents and incomes are brought into balance, and “good cause” eviction is not passed, Housing Court will go back to being an eviction mill. “The moratorium on evictions should continue until there is housing equity,” says Jenny Laurie, director of Housing Court Answers.
Columbia Law professor Mary Zulack, an expert on Housing Court and the founder of the Committee on Legal Needs of the Poor, says that Housing Court needs to return to its purported mission of code enforcement, by having the court and the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development take the initiative in enforcing the correction of hazardous conditions.
If Housing Court reopens in the coming weeks or months, this first day will be like nothing seen before. Thousands of tenants will be lined up waiting to get in to answer their cases, landlords will be trying to file new cases, and organizers will be there as well, to give them information about their rights—as well as how they can join the fight to bring justice to Housing Court.
[Note: This article is accurate as of May 11, 2020. There will be new information as things develop.]
If you have a case in Housing Court, are facing eviction or are living with hazardous conditions, you can get the latest information by calling Met Council’s tenant hotline (212) 979-0611
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