For most of the pandemic, New York state has maintained a strict moratorium on evictions, a guarantee that many elected officials and housing advocates say has prevented a cascading crisis in a state with a huge number of struggling tenants.
Even as nearly every other state or federal moratorium ended, New York’s protections were extended time and again. Only in New Mexico has there been such a long statewide moratorium.
But New York is now approaching a dangerous milestone. On Saturday, state officials will let the moratorium expire, giving way to a long-feared flurry of evictions that many worry will spark widespread social unrest and undermine New York’s recovery from the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, about a quarter of the state’s tenant-occupied households spent more than half of their income on rent and some utilities. In New York City, where many renters live, the problem is even more acute, with a third of households in that category.
The pandemic only made it worse. The state has received more than 291,000 applications for a pandemic rent reduction program since last summer, reflecting the high number of people in rent arrears. That program is running out of money.
“It’s a time of a lot of uncertainty and uncertainty,” said Siya Hegde, policy advisor to the civil litigation practice at Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit legal services group that represents tenants in court.
It’s not known how many people are at risk for evictions after the moratorium ends, but before the pandemic, landlords in New York City filed for many more evictions than any other major U.S. city, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Nearly 140,000 evictions were filed in 2019.
Many politicians and housing associations agree that the moratorium was only intended as a stopgap solution during an extraordinary crisis. But its end marks a pivotal moment and sets the stage for a fraught political struggle.
Should an eviction crisis materialize, it would pose a formidable challenge to Democrat Governor Kathy Hochul, who has made housing a central point of her agenda as she prepares for a full term in November.
She has been pressured by many landlords, who have lost significant rental income during the pandemic and who felt the moratorium was too heavy-handed and easily abused. She has also faced strong criticism from her party’s left wing for letting the moratorium expire without backing sweeping new eviction protections.
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Ms. Hochul said this week that she and state lawmakers are discussing next steps. On Thursday, she and the governors of California, New Jersey and Illinois sent a letter to the US Treasury Department calling for more rent reductions for states with high renters.
Elected officials and housing advocates worry that the end of the moratorium could reverberate far beyond the housing court, leading to a rise in crime, homelessness, mental health problems, coronavirus outbreaks and more. A moratorium on commercial evictions and executions also expires on Saturday.
Agustina Vélez, 41, is sure she would have been homeless without the moratorium.
She lost her job cleaning houses in 2020 when the pandemic hit New York. Her husband lost his job as a cook. They struggled to pay the $1,300 monthly rent for their studio apartment in Corona, Queens, where they live with their two sons.
Since then, they have both found work, but they owe their landlord more than $8,000. At one point during the pandemic, he told them he wanted to evict them.
“I am so afraid that one day I will come back and all our belongings will be outside our building,” said Ms Vélez. “We live with that fear.”
Her landlord was reached by phone and said he was not immediately available to talk.
New York also has many landlords with only a few properties who have faced their own financial pressures with no steady rental income.
“It’s time to end the eviction moratorium and end renters skipping rent because there are no consequences for not paying,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents approximately 25,000 lessors of rent-stabilized units in the region. city.
Government and local officials across the country are trying to find ways to keep people at home.
On Wednesday, the mayor of Seattle extended a moratorium on evictions until mid-February, citing the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Last week, the New Mexico legal system announced a new pilot program to encourage landlords and tenants to use rent relief funds and prevent evictions.
It’s not clear what will happen in New York’s housing courts after the moratorium ends. After the Supreme Court lifted President Biden’s moratorium in August, many parts of the country saw a gradual increase in cases, although levels remained below prepandemic levels, according to a December analysis of filed eviction applications from the Eviction Lab.
Given the expiration of the federal moratorium, “this is a better place than I think a lot of people expected,” said Peter Hepburn, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in Newark and researcher with the Eviction Lab.
That may be because many landlords have weathered the pandemic, in part because they have cut costs, according to several studies. Government aid programs, such as the more than $46 billion rent relief, have also helped.
But there are reasons to think that New York could be worse.
The state has the highest percentage of renters in the nation, and New York City’s recovery has been slow: The November unemployment rate was 9 percent, more than double the national rate.
Hopes for more federal funds to supplement the rent reduction program look bleak, even as applications continue to pour in. State officials estimate that more than 100,000 applicants could be left unaided.
But New York still offers strong tenant protections, including free representation in court for tenant housing in New York City. A separate state law passed during the pandemic will in some cases prevent evictions for people facing financial difficulties. While the state’s rent relief program has been largely abolished, applying for rental relief essentially ensures that tenants are not evicted while the application is pending.
Left-wing Democrats are urging the state legislature to pass a sweeping measure known as “eviction of a good cause,” which would limit the grounds landlords could use to evict tenants, and protect those who cannot afford “unreasonable” rent increases.
Similar legislation failed last year and in 2019, and Ms Hochul has not disclosed her position.
“If nothing is done and after the eviction moratorium ends, it is only a matter of months before New York grapples with an unprecedented eviction crisis,” the officials said in the letter to the federal government.
But many landlords say they have to start collecting rent to pay their own bills and maintain their properties.
Sharon Redhead, who owns five buildings in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and has more than 50 tenants, said she has lost about 30 to 40 percent of rental income during the pandemic. She used a $50,000 loan to help pay for heating, water, maintenance, and other expenses.
She has informal payment arrangements with most of her renters who owe rent. Some have successfully applied for housing benefit. But one tenant in particular owes more than $11,400 — a year’s rent — and has refused to apply for aid.
“A housing court is the only option for uncooperative people,” she said.
Sofia Cerda Campero contributed to the report.