New York's Expiring Eviction Moratorium Threatens Hundreds of Thousands of Renters
With the status of his family's housing hanging in the balance, Arthur Jackson often thinks of a story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.
Specifically the parable of the ram in the bush, when God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Just when Abraham raises his knife, God gives him a ram, stuck in a bush, instead.
“The man had enough faith in God to believe,” he said.
Jackson, a former taxi driver, relates the last-minute reprieve in the story to what he hopes will be a safe landing for himself, his wife and two daughters, who live in a three-bedroom apartment in Yonkers that they've shared for over eight years.
In September, his landlord abruptly told him they’d have to leave their home, for which they pay $1,500 per month, by Dec. 31 because she was letting go of the building.
But there are few affordable homes for them in a city with a chronic housing shortage, and New York's eviction moratorium, which protected hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from eviction, is expiring Saturday.
So far, the best options for Jackson's family have been a housing lottery and an apartment in an unsafe neighborhood complete with mouse droppings. Now, he’s expecting eviction papers any day.
“I wish it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I’m praying that God would have already opened a door by then.”
How big is the problem?
As New York’s eviction moratorium expires, tenants behind on rent during the COVID-19 pandemic must now navigate courts inundated with cases postponed because of the ban.
Nearly 600,000 households across New York are behind on rent, according to National Equity Access, a policy group connected with the University of Southern California, using data based on census survey and Treasury Department data from the fall.
Westchester County has the most households behind on rent and the highest rent owed in the state outside New York City's five boroughs. Westchester also had the most eviction filings throughout the pandemic outside of New York City, at almost 7,500, according to state court data.
As of Jan. 2, New York state had over 227,000 active eviction cases, according to data compiled by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, a group of tenant advocacy organizations. This includes nearly half a million renters, although advocates for both tenants and landlords estimate the number is higher.
During the pandemic, tenants have a few protections shielding them from the eviction. The moratorium allows them to file a hardship declaration shielding them from eviction. They can also apply to the state or various cities' emergency rental assistance programs, which stay evictions until the state decides if tenants are eligible for relief funds.
Jackson has a fixed income after becoming disabled when a car hit him in 2015. His wife works in a grocery store.
He has sought help from the Rev. Mary Ann Watkins, who serves as the tenant association president for her building in Yonkers, to search for housing. However, Watkins said tenants have difficulty finding alternatives.
In over 50 cases, Watkins said she hasn’t seen success with the city’s rent relief program, which is separate from the state's Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a federally funded program that allowed for rent relief to be distributed to landlords on behalf of tenants behind on their rent related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yonkers administered the federal money through a local program, as did several other municipalities across New York, but that program is closed without more federal funding, city spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin said.
Watkins worries about what may happen to some renters without the moratorium. She fears it could mean more homeless people in a city already struggling with that problem.
“It’s those types of stories that make your heart bleed,” Watkins said. “But it’s also those kinds of stories that show we need to help them.”
The Monday after Christmas, the Yonkers NAACP unit held a virtual call to explain tenants rights with attorneys from Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, a legal aid nonprofit.
Yonkers NAACP Vice President Kisha Skipper has worried about tenants being unable to find assistance in the days leading up to the moratorium.
“It’s insurmountable what we’re going to see if somebody doesn’t do something,” said the Rev. Frank Coleman, president of the local NAACP chapter. “Everyone is moving a little slow.”
Victoria Wagnerman, a staff attorney with Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, started handling tenant cases as lockdowns started during the early days of the pandemic in March 2020.
Nearly two years later, Wagnerman is preparing to handle about 70 eviction cases that have been postponed until after Jan. 15, when the moratorium expires. Some cases go as far as March.
“A lot of things are up in the air right now,” she said.
“It won’t be quite like going back in time, two years,” said Marcie Kobak, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services. "Because the amount of arrears that are owed are just so much more.”
Wagnerman and Kobak will face off against attorneys like Andrew Romano, whose law firm represents many landlords in Yonkers City Court, where the bulk of Westchester’s eviction filings are.
“This year, 2022, is going to be a catchup year,” Romano said. “It’s not going to be a pleasant situation.”
'Chaos' predicted by tenant advocate
Dennis Hanratty, the executive director of Mount Vernon United Tenants, has devoted staff to help renters apply for relief on arrears. He warned of "chaos" with the end of the moratorium.
“You’re talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of people, being put out," he said. "How are we going to do that?”
In a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the moratorium was “concluding very shortly.” She signed legislation in September extending the eviction moratorium to Jan. 15.
Meanwhile, Hochul called for additional federal aid to the state’s federally funded $2.4 billion rental assistance program, which previously closed after state officials warned it would run out of money.
The program recently received new life when a Manhattan court issued a temporary injunction ordering the state to reopen its rent relief program for new applications just days before the moratorium ended.
Hochul previously wrote to the U.S. Treasury Department to reallocate nearly $1 billion from other states that hadn’t used their rent relief funds, although New York only received about $27 million, less than 3% of its request.
In a joint letter dated Thursday, Hochul and governors from three other states wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, asking her to reevaluate how the federal department distributes funds to states where demand for rent relief is highest.
"It is crucial that we not give struggling tenants and landlords false hope for long-awaited financial relief when — without federal intervention — there is no funding to support them," Hochul said in a statement.
Moratorium is a 'triage policy'
Advocacy groups for both tenants and landlords have pushed the state to add more money into rent relief. They see the moratorium as a Band-Aid solution.
“We can’t continue to have these triage policies that are just going to ensure that whenever they do end, which inevitably they have to, we have tenants who are in housing facing rents they can’t afford pre-pandemic and post-pandemic,” said Rebecca Garrard, legislative director of Citizen Action of New York, a statewide advocacy organization.
Instead, Citizen Action of New York has supported a bill currently being considered in the state Legislature for “good cause evictions” that would require landlords to provide reasonable cause for evicting someone.
Property owners in New York aren't in favor of that legislation, but agree with housing advocates that the moratorium isn't a permanent solution.
The Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP, an association representing more than 4,000 property owners mostly in New York’s outer boroughs, is pushing for the Legislature to add $2 billion to the state rental assistance program.
“An eviction moratorium just delays the inevitable and prevents no one from accumulating rental debt,” said Jay Martin, CHIP’s executive director.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz previously authored legislation to initially extend the moratorium and tenant protections during the pandemic.
Dinowitz supported pushing the moratorium end date because of winter conditions coupled with a surge in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant, but he didn’t see an appetite for that plan in Albany.
“I don’t think these things can continue forever,” he said. “But unfortunately, the circumstances have just not improved to the extent that they need to.”
The end of state eviction protections and the uncertainty around federal relief funding has left Jackson, living with his family in Yonkers, to put their future in the hands of the housing lottery.
On Monday, he entered a lottery via Zoom for a three-bedroom apartment in Tarrytown. He hoped he would be number one. At the end, he was 102nd.
Still, he believes God will find his family a home.
“I’m aware that there is reality,” he said. “It has to be that ram in the bush at that point.”
Cuevas, Eduardo. “New York’s Expiring Eviction Moratorium Threatens Hundreds of Thousands of Renters.” The Journal News, Rockland/Westchester Journal News, 13 Jan. 2022, www.lohud.com/story/news/2022/01/13/new-york-state-eviction-moratorium-end-date-renters-face-looming-deadline/9094643002/.