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‘It’s a confusing situation’: New York’s move to halt evictions lacks clarity

A state judge announced a moratorium on evictions last week, but new cases can still be filed in housing court

Max Touhey

Update: On March 20, an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo temporarily closed this loophole. If you have questions about New York’s eviction moratorium, read our explainer with the latest on what this means for renters.

Many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief last week when a statewide eviction moratorium was enacted in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But under a sort of loophole, New York landlords can still file new eviction cases against tenants, spurring widespread confusion and raising health concerns amid the state’s outbreak of COVID-19.

Effective March 17, all pending eviction cases and orders were suspended, but “hundreds of new cases were filed” citywide this week, according to a recent email from New York City Housing Court Judge Jean Schneider to attorneys. Those new cases will be postponed for “about 45 days,” Schneider wrote.

Now, attorneys worry that some confused tenants may show up to the courts, fearing that if they do not respond—especially for nonpayment cases that typically require tenants to appear within 10 days—they could face consequences. (The courts have also suspended default judgements, meaning a tenant who fails to appear in court will not be penalized.)

“It’s absolutely making a bad situation worse,” says Kenny Schaeffer, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society and a member of the Met Council on Housing. “If tenants go to court they could get sick; court officers are meeting people at the door trying to discourage them from going in unless it’s an emergency. It’s a confusing situation.”

New Yorkers desperate for clarity on the order have been calling a hotline run by Housing Court Answers, which offers advice and resources for those without attorneys. On a typical day the organization receives 80-100 calls; on the day the eviction moratorium took effect, some 140 calls inundated the hotline.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” says Jenny Laurie, the organization’s executive director. Many phoned for guidance on their eviction cases or about emergency repairs needed in their apartments, such as one 79-year-old woman with a fever whose toilet was not working. “A lot of people are in situations where they’re pretty desperate,” she says. “I don’t think that landlords should be filing new cases against tenants right now.”

The city’s housing courts will accept new cases “at least until the Governor issues an order permitting us to stop,” Schneider said in her email. Such an order would need to suspend the statute of limitations statewide for new cases, say housing law experts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to questions on whether he is considering such an action, or any other that would crack down on new cases.

“Since the beginning, we’ve been helping New Yorkers on multiple fronts navigate and mitigate the collateral effects of this pandemic,” Jack Sterne, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said in a statement. “This work continues.”

One solution could be to make it clearer in the information sent by the court to tenants when a case is filed that proceedings will be adjourned for roughly 45 days, says Schaeffer.

Schneider emphasized that the court is strongly discouraging new motions, citing health concerns. “We urge practitioners to consider not filing any motion that is not absolutely necessary at this time,” she wrote. “In the interest of preserving public health, we hope to reduce traffic to our court buildings to a minimum. Any motion filed brings to the court not just the person who files the motion but also the person who receives it .... This may threaten the health of many others.”

Last week, New York Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks announced in a memo to court employees that “all eviction proceedings and pending eviction orders shall be suspended statewide until further notice.” Only “essential applications,” such as serious housing code violations, landlord lockouts, and repair orders, would be permitted to proceed, according to the memo. City marshals are not permitted to execute eviction warrants during the moratorium, according to Diane Struzzi, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Investigation.

The declaration came only days after tenant advocates gathered more than 16,000 signatures for a petition calling on Cuomo and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore to issue an eviction moratorium amid the state’s outbreak. The Housing Justice for All coalition—made up of tenants’ rights groups including Make the Road, New York Communities for Change, and Citizen Action of New York—spearheaded that effort and celebrated the moratorium as a win for residential and commercial renters.

But news that cases can still be filed reignited calls for state lawmakers to step in with legislation that would make the moratorium law during a state emergency, instead of allowing the court system to lift the moratorium when officials see fit.

“This causes a lot of anxiety when people are already scared,” says Cea Weaver, a spokesperson for Housing Justice for All. “We always were demanding that the governor and the state legislature do this, and we think this is just showing us how vulnerable we are relying on the courts.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, one of a handful of state lawmakers who has introduced legislation to halt housing removals, says he continues to work toward “a full eviction moratorium that suspends the statute of limitations for new cases.”

“It would be a massive public health failure [for New Yorkers to] attend court unnecessarily,” Hoylman said in a statement. “Public health experts want us to stay home during this pandemic—we need to make it possible for all of us to do exactly that.”