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

The long-feared pandemic-fueled eviction crisis is starting to hit upstate New York, housing advocates and activists say.

There are already at least 65 live eviction warrants in the Albany area “that could be executed by the county sheriff at any moment,” Rebecca Garrard, state housing organizer for Citizen Action, said at an online news conference Oct. 6. And in Rochester, there had been at least 27 signed as of Oct. 16, Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union organizer Allie Dentinger told Tenant/Inquilino.

“The warrants are being signed faster than we can keep up with them,’ she says. “Most of the tenants didn’t know they had a court date on the day the order was signed against them.” One tenant, she adds, said she’d called her landlord, who told her he thought the case had been dismissed.

The issue, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said during the press conference, 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.

“I only have seven days to get out of there,” said Keyona Baggling, a mother of two children and a member of the Rochester 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, a 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.”

“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.

However, Cuomo’s extension of the Safe Harbor Act to cover tenants facing eviction before the pandemic hit has enabled the Rochester tenants union to stall some evictions, Dentinger says. On Oct. 16, an eviction warrant was withdrawn against Pafaya Franklin, who had been able to pay her back rent using rental assistance from Monroe County, funded by the federal stimulus package enacted in March.

Chris Green’s case, also heard Oct. 16, was postponed for a week. Keyona Baggling got her eviction put on hold at least until after a court hearing scheduled for Oct. 22.

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,” says Ellen Davidson, a Legal Aid Society staff attorney.

“It’s bad here,” she says. “It’s so much worse upstate.”

The city is the only jurisdiction in the state that has courts specifically for landlord-tenant cases, she explains. In other cities big enough, such as Rochester and Albany, they are handled by 61 municipal civil courts, and the Long Island suburbs have 11 district courts. Rural renters are likely to end up in one of the 1,300 town and village courts, where many judges don’t know much about landlord-tenant law, and some are not even lawyers.

“We need a full moratorium that protects tenants until the pandemic is over,” says Dentinger. —