Even before the pandemic hit, Enrique Figueroa and his 8-year-old daughter were in a housing crisis. The 34-year-old single father had been renting a two-story, cream-colored clapboard house in the Belmont section of the Bronx. In January, his landlord had accused him of violating his lease when the mother of his child babysat while he worked the overnight shift as a security guard — she wasn’t supposed to be living there — which started months of back-and-forth in housing court. Figueroa withheld rent, claiming tenant harassment. And to make matters worse, he lost his job when he had to leave work early to let his daughter and her mother into the house after they were accidentally locked out — and the landlord had refused to let them in.
The arrival of the coronavirus had made finding a new home even trickier, so on March 20 — four days before they were to be evicted — Figueroa was packing up their things to move to a family friend’s house in Danbury, Connecticut while he looked for a new apartment and a job when a miracle happened: Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statewide moratorium on evictions.
“It was like a weight lifted,” he recalls. “It was such a relief to have more time. I just need more time.”
Figueroa is among the 14,500 New Yorkers with pending eviction warrants who will be the first to be kicked out of their homes when the moratorium finally expires in October. For these renters, the pause has staved off the inevitable and temporarily helped the city avoid adding to the homelessness crisis on top of a barely contained health crisis. But with the economy contracting and jobs scarce, a restart to the housing-court eviction machine could create its own slowly unfolding disaster, making the 14,500 tenants like Figueroa just the first wave.
And right behind them, there are 200,000 pending eviction cases in New York City alone that were filed before March 17 that can now begin their (slow) progress through housing court. Landlord trade group Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) estimates one in four of the city’s 5.4 million tenants did not pay rent from April through June, which means many more eviction cases are inevitably on their way. Now that weekly $600 supplemental pandemic unemployment payments have expired, more renters will likely be unable to pay come September 1. New York University’s Furman Center projects that 279,400 low-income New Yorkers who filed claims for those benefits will likely have a hard time paying their rent without them. The Furman Center further estimates that there are an additional 111,500 renters who, because of immigration status and other reasons, lost their jobs but did not claim unemployment. And it’s not clear how they suddenly will be able to pay their back rent once the eviction moratorium ends.
“These numbers are kind of unimaginable. We’ve never faced anything like this in our history,” says Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Practice Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society. “I went through 9/11 and Sandy, and, truthfully, I thought that was as bad as it was ever going to get. Now I realize I was completely wrong. And we really are not prepared for that as a city and a state.”
With only six weeks to go before the eviction process restarts, things are looking grim. This ticking clock has meant many sleepless nights for Marta Cortez, who for the last two years has rented the basement apartment of a brick single-family home in Ridgewood, Queens, with her teenage son, Joshua. Cortez, whose landlord claims she doesn’t have a valid lease and took her to court in November, had a hearing scheduled for mid-March, but that hearing has been postponed for months. She had hoped, like Figueroa, that extra time would give her a chance to “reset,” but instead her life was upended by the pandemic.
In April, Cortez lost her job as a restaurant manager. She missed her father’s funeral in May when he contracted COVID-19 and passed away in Santa Barbara, California. And Joshua had to have emergency surgery to remove his appendix in July. Her unemployment benefits have kept her and her son afloat, but now that the weekly $600 payments have expired, she’s burning through what savings she has left. And she has no idea what she’ll do if the day finally comes for her to move out.
“I’m struggling to stay strong for us right now,” says Cortez, who without relatives or friends who could take her in is bracing for a reality she never thought she’d have to face: the possibility of moving her family into a homeless shelter. “The stress is killing me. People have to understand that we’re all dealing with a lot right now.”
In addition to extending the pause on evictions, last week’s court guidance may at least help some vulnerable renters resolve their cases before they progress. Under that directive, eviction cases filed before March 17 cannot move forward without the courts holding settlement conferences “to address a range of subjects related to the case and COVID-19 concerns.” These meetings would also determine whether a tenant qualifies for relief under the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which creates a special defense for tenants facing eviction for unpaid rent accrued after March 7.
In the case of those with pending eviction warrants, it would actually mandate a series of extra steps, meaning a city marshal would not be able to act on a warrant right after the moratorium expires. Instead, the stipulation puts a new system in place in which landlords would have to file a motion; a court date would be calendared and then the tenant has the ability to respond to that motion to try and prevent their eviction. (Tenants cannot lose an eviction case because they failed to respond to papers filed against them, which used to be the case, but they could still face hefty penalties if they miss a court hearing.)
Marika Dias, the managing director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, stresses it’s a small but critical change that gives those tenants a last-ditch effort to defend their homes, but it’s still a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. “That’s a much better situation than what we were going to see unfold,” says Dias. “That said, people are not going to suddenly have their job or their health restored come October 1. The situation demands a political solution.”
The State Legislature passed a rent-relief program that began rolling out in July; the $100 million program offers onetime income-restricted assistance but falls short of comprehensive rent relief for the state’s tenants and small landlords. Tenant advocates — chiefly the statewide Housing Justice for All coalition — are pushing for the passage of several far more ambitious bills recently introduced in the State Legislature. One would cancel rent for 90 days after the end of New York’s state of emergency (which is ongoing and is expected to last for months longer) while another would institute an eviction moratorium for a year after that order has expired. Tenants would have their rents waived for the entirety of the pandemic in New York, and evictions would be on pause for another 12 months after that. But both bills are long shots and would face stiff opposition from the landlord lobby.
New York’s imperiled renters, in the short term, have been left to rely on a series of executive orders from the governor and administrative directives reacting to those orders from the court system. It’s made for a messy progression of tenant protections, with new guidance on evictions often being released at the eleventh hour. That most recently played out in early August when Cuomo signed an executive order that opened the door for the court system to continue its suspension on evictions (which was originally set to expire on August 5). But just because Cuomo gave the court system an opening to extend its moratorium did not mean it had to, which meant that, instead of taking action to end or extend tenant protections, the governor passed the buck to the court system. Ultimately, after seven days of leaving tenants in limbo, the Office of Court Administration moved to extend its statewide suspension on evictions through October 1.
In the meantime, tenants have a bit more time to plan for the future. After the moratorium was announced in March, Figueroa unpacked his and his daughter’s belongings and got back to work researching new apartments, making calls, and submitting applications. But as the pandemic forced the city to a standstill in spring, the gist of the responses were all the same: We’re not accepting applications right now.
It wasn’t until late June that his apartment search was able to begin in earnest. Soon after, however, a sharp pain in his gut forced Figueroa to the hospital, where he learned that part of his intestine was protruding through his stomach muscle. Surgery for the condition, which can be brought on by extreme stress, has left him mostly bedbound and unable to pick up anything more than 150 pounds for several months. Now he's once again struggling to find an apartment — is temporarily unable to work — and sitting atop a pile of evictions when city marshals will finally be able to remove renters a mere six weeks from now.
“I’m living on borrowed time,” says Figueroa. “It’s just a lot to handle. I want to leave because I feel uncomfortable here, but I also want to stay because I have nowhere to go.”