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‘Health or Their Home’: The Risks of Housing Court During a Pandemic

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Tenant advocates fear the coronavirus could spread in cramped housing court.

A street lined with residential brick apartment buildings in New York City. Tenants facing evictions in these buildings may eventually have to visit housing court amid the coronavirus pandemic. Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Narrow hallways, long lines, and cramped elevators can make social distancing next to impossible in the city’s five housing courts. Add an expected swell of new eviction cases on top of the restart of pending proceedings later this month, and that’s a recipe for disaster, argue tenant attorneys who say the city’s housing courts are not ready to safely reopen.

Judges and court employees began returning to courthouses in New York City this week under guidance from the Office of Court Administration (OCA), which requires screenings for COVID-19 symptoms. All proceedings will be virtual, and a blanket moratorium on evictions is in place until June 20.

But once that date passes, protection from eviction is limited to tenants who can prove financial hardship from COVID-19, and a coalition of tenant attorneys fear an influx of new filings will put their clients, many of whom are from minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic, at risk of infection. In a letter penned this week, 19 legal-service providers urged the OCA to postpone reopening the city’s civil and housing courts amid the pandemic until greater safety precautions are in place.

“This will create a situation where those most at risk of infection must decide between their health or their home,” says Jeanette Zelhof, the executive director of Mobilization for Justice, which backed the letter. “No New Yorker should have to risk their life seeking justice.”

The OCA says acrylic barriers, hand-sanitizer dispensers, and other safety measures “will be installed in courthouse areas as needed.” Otherwise, all staff and visitors must wear masks and use markers to maintain proper social distance for a “measured, deliberative process” developed after reopening of courthouses upstate, says OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.

That’s not enough for tenant advocates who want “a thorough safety plan for reopening, informed by health experts, legal advocates and other key stakeholders,” their letter states. Such a plan is especially crucial to protecting vulnerable tenants, according to Jason Wu, a housing attorney and a trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.

“Low-income New Yorkers are still struggling to survive the public-health crisis, and the economic crisis is not over,” says Wu. “The only reason to open the housing courts is to put the profits of landlords over the lives of people.”

The coalition of advocates predicts that up to 50,000 new eviction cases could be filed after the moratorium lifts, mostly for nonpayment of rent. Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the initial eviction moratorium — which is set to expire on June 20 — by two months, to August. But some tenants may not be able to prove they’ve suffered a “financial hardship” due to COVID-19 (the state hasn’t clarified what precise criteria renters have to meet to qualify), and those who haven’t suffered a loss of income but face eviction proceedings may have little choice but to head to court.

Attorney Mitchell Posilkin, who is the general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association (which represents 25,000 property owners), says that landlords share in advocates’ health and safety concerns but that property owners are grappling with paying their own bills in the midst of lost rental income from tenants and businesses.

“For property owners, the financial and legal obligations are continuing regardless of the circumstances,” says Posilkin, referring chiefly to property-tax bills due on July 1. “Unless the pressures are eased on property owners, they have no other choice but to pursue their legal remedies in housing court.”

Some landlords may get that relief. Two new pieces of legislation introduced by City Council member Margaret Chin and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, respectively, would defer property-tax payments: One bill would allow qualifying owners, whose buildings are assessed at more than $250,000, to defer paying the full amount of their property taxes until October, while a second bill would defer property taxes on buildings worth less than $250,000 without interest.

Posilkin also points to strategies to minimize visits to court, such as an expansion of virtual conferencing and upgrading housing court with electronic filing. But that feels like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound to Natasia de Silva, the deputy director of the Tenant Rights Coalition for Legal Services NYC.

“What we’re seeing right now is inadequate,” says de Silva. “We already have a very large number of homeless and unstably housed individuals, and it is only going to get worse if evictions continue.”