URBAN AGENDA: Homeless Crisis Looms as COVID-19 Evictions Come Due

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 9/16/2020, 3:51 p.m.
October 4th is Doomsday, the date when some of the mountain of evictions pending in New York courts can go ...
David R. Jones Contributed

October 4th is Doomsday, the date when some of the mountain of evictions pending in New York courts can go forward. That date is a reminder that the threat of catastrophic, Depression-era homelessness is just around the corner.

Most tenants may be covered by a federal eviction freeze through the end of the year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo can issue a new executive order, or the New York Legislature can take up legislation to extend tenant protections, such as a bill to block evictions until a year after the pandemic state of emergency ends.

Either way, the arrears are stacking up, with no end in sight. As the moratoriums disappear, the evictions will increase. Eviction is not the answer. It does not help tenants cast from their homes and thrown deeper into poverty and at greater risk of the coronavirus. And it certainly doesn’t help property owners, who face a 5.1 percent vacancy rate in Manhattan. They have bills and mortgages to pay, too, but eviction is the only tool available to them.

We need a solution, such as serious investment from the federal government, a mechanism for rent forgiveness to assist the more than 100 million people nationwide at risk of eviction and cash-on-the-barrelhead relief for both renters and landlords. The $100 Billion Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act, passed by the House of Representatives as part of the Heroes Act, offers hope to renters. This funding would be in addition to what has already been allocated toward the New York State rental assistance program. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate has refused to take up the House bill and it appears no additional federal aid will be on the way before the November presidential election.

In New York City, an estimated 735,000 households have lost employment income as a result of COVID-19, according to a New York University study. The working poor, Black and Latinx households – precisely those New Yorkers without the financial resources to ride out bad times – have been particularly hard hit. It is bound to get worse as the ranks of the unemployed grow and jeopardized service-sector businesses stumble.

The NYU study further estimates that there are 111,500 renters who, due to immigration status and other reasons, lost their jobs but did not claim unemployment. It is not clear how they will suddenly pay their back rent once the eviction moratorium ends. And according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 38 percent of renters in New York State who reported loss of employment income in their household said that they had little to no confidence in paying next month’s rent. This is the equivalent of 906,074 renters.

Evictions will skyrocket once the current state moratorium expires. At stake are tenant protections that could keep 14,500 New Yorkers from imminent risk of losing their homes, as well as the 200,000 eviction cases that were filed prior to the pandemic.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx) have proposed a bill that creates a blanket eviction moratorium. A coalition of housing advocates, including Community Service Society and Housing Justice For All, support this bill. It would prohibit evictions for a full year after the state lifts its final pandemic-related restrictions.

For the time being, most New York City tenants are – in theory – shielded through the end of the year by an eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “prevent the further spread of COVID-19.” However, the CDC pause is highly conditional. To qualify, tenants must submit a declaration of inability to pay, confirm that they earn less than $100,000 annually and, perhaps most difficult, prove that they have attempted to secure public relief. Failure to meet all these conditions could result in fines and the loss of housing protection. Tenants in unregulated apartments can still be displaced by landlords who simply refuse to renew their leases, then sue if they refuse to leave – even if they are paying full rent.

With little time remaining before October 4th, the best option is for the New York Legislature to pass the Myrie-Reyes bill, or for the governor to at least sign a new executive order. We need fast action, because those who lose their permanent housing usually move in with friends or family — which is especially likely given the ambiguities in the CDC order.

Moving in with another family creates its own set of problems. Crowded housing correlates with higher rates of COVID-19. If a family that has been evicted moves into a friend’s or family member’s apartment, even more people could be exposed to the virus.

There must be a recognition that everyone deserves a stable, affordable place to live in normal times, and especially during this pandemic. Our singular mission must be to keep as many tenants in their apartments as possible until help arrives.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.