‘The Eviction Crisis Is Starting to Happen,’ Activists Say

The long-feared pandemic-fueled eviction crisis is starting to hit upstate New York, housing advocates and activists said at an online news conference Oct. 6—despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Sept. 28 executive order that supposedly extends a moratorium on evicting residential tenants until Jan. 1.

There are already at least 65 live eviction warrants in the Albany area “that could be executed by the county sheriff at any moment,” said Rebecca Garrard, state housing organizer for Citizen Action. And in Rochester, at least four tenants could be thrown out of their homes as soon as Oct. 14, as a court stay on their eviction warrants expired Oct. 1.

The issue, said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, is that Cuomo’s executive order “is not a true moratorium.” It does not continue an earlier ban on residential evictions: It merely extends the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which protects people from being evicted if they can prove in court that they have been unable to pay their rent because they lost too much income due to the pandemic, to cover tenants ordered evicted before the emergency was declared March 7. That change will be in effect through Jan. 1.

The governor’s order did not affect the Oct. 1 expiration of a state Office of Court Administration moratorium on issuing eviction warrants.

Gov. Cuomo “basically created a fake eviction moratorium,” said Sumathy Kumar of the Housing Justice for All coalition.

 “I only have seven days to get out of there,” said Keyona Baggling, a mother of two children and a member of the Rochester City-Wide Tenants Union. She said she lost hours at her nurse’s aide job because of the epidemic, but has been unable to get public homelessness-prevention assistance because “if I work one hour over [the limit], I don’t qualify.”

“I lost my job because of COVID,” said Chris Green, another Rochester renter facing eviction, unsuccessfully fighting back tears. “It’s hard because I have two kids, and if I don’t have a place to stay, they don’t have a place to stay.” 

He said he’d been homeless regularly since he was 16, and “I don’t want to keep dealing with it.” 

Baggling and Green “are the people the governor is trying to pretend he’s protecting,” said Williams.

“What we’re hearing is the eviction crisis starting to happen,” said Judith Goldiner, head attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Practice Law Reform Unit. 

The Safe Harbor Act, she explained, only protects tenants who are able to go to court and document their financial losses. In practice, she added, most people don’t know that they have the right to do that, and don’t know how to prove lost income properly without advice from a lawyer.

Proving what their income was and how much they lost because of the epidemic is extremely complex for people who work off the books, such as undocumented immigrants, as well as for gig-economy workers, temporary workers, and those with fluctuating or intermittent schedules. Even with a lawyer, Goldiner said, it’s also difficult to show lost income from a roommate moving out or a family member dying.

New York City guarantees legal assistance for a large share of low-income tenants facing eviction, but tenants upstate and in the suburbs are on their own. Rural renters are likely to end up in one of the state’s 1,300 town and village courts, where many judges don’t know much about landlord-tenant law, and some are not even lawyers. 

Even with the city’s right-to-counsel program, Goldiner said, almost half of tenants facing eviction fail to appear in court, which leaves them open to a “default judgement” against them. She said she didn’t know why, but possible reasons include not being able to find a lawyer, not receiving the eviction notice because it was served improperly, the notice being in a language they don’t understand, and being afraid of getting infected with the COVID-19 virus if they spend time inside a court building.

Last year, tenant advocates pushed to have a measure to prohibit evictions without a specific “good cause” included in the landmark Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which dramatically strengthened rent regulations. That addition would have protected hundreds of thousands of tenants in buildings upstate and elsewhere against arbitrary evictions, but it was excluded from the final legislation. 

“We’re seeing that missing part, unfortunately, coming to fruition,” Williams noted.

Housing Justice for All is lobbying the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to enact the Emergency Housing Stability and Displacement Prevention Act (S8667/A10827), sponsored by state Senator Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx). It would extend the eviction moratorium until a year after the pandemic state of emergency is officially lifted. It would also bar evictions in holdover proceedings (for reasons other than nonpayment), which have been allowed under the Cuomo moratorium but restricted by court policies, and would include commercial tenants. The current commercial eviction moratorium is set to expire Oct. 20.

The Legislature is waiting until after the election to see if the federal government takes action, Assemblymember Reyes told Tenant/Inquilino Oct. 7. 

“What we have now is not a moratorium,” she said, as many New Yorkers are unable to take advantage of the Tenant Safe Harbor Act because they don’t have access to a lawyer. 

“We need the governor to issue an executive order that matches his words,” said Garrard.