Activists, lawyers & politicians to tenants: sign anti-eviction forms now!

Stephon Johnson | 2/18/2021, midnight
Tenants haven’t taken advantage of all COVID-related materials, according to housing activists and organizers.

Tenants haven’t taken advantage of all COVID-related materials, according to housing activists and organizers.

A new report for Law360 shows that New Yorkers who need help with rent aren’t taking advantage of the options available. In particular, filing in and applying for the “Tenant’s Declaration of Hardship During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which would put a stay on eviction cases until the beginning of May.

Some organizers are reminding the public that they shouldn’t have to wait that long to declare it. According to the report, fewer than 2,300 forms from tenants wanting to hold off and/or prevent eviction cases have been requested, filled and sent to the proper authorities. There has been frustration from activists and legal representatives alike in getting the word out about submitting these forms.

Ava Farkas, executive director for the Met Council on Housing, said that activist organizations are the reason why any of the requests were submitted at all.

“What’s significant about the number of forms submitted is that advocacy groups have generated the bulk of the hardship forms, not the state, which was slow to get them out to tenants and to do promotion of this new protection,” Farkas said. “Housing Justice for All has helped tenants submit nearly 2,000 forms by emailing it and phone banking tenants we know are behind on rent.

“The good news about this eviction protection is that anyone brought to court after February 26 will still have the chance to pause their case by filling out the hardship declaration.”

Under the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020, residents can stay eviction proceedings and stop landlords from filing new cases for 60 days, (ending on Feb. 21). At this moment, tenants can submit hardship declaration forms to their landlord and/or file with the court, citing an inability to pay their rent due to financial or health-related issues. The request, if granted, would extend the stay on evictions until May 1.

According to a recent report by the NYU Furman Center, in New York City, “The share of rental assistance need (75.2%) is higher than the share of renter households with lost wages (64%).” One of the reasons for this, according to the report, could be due to the city having more entertainment and hospitality workers who lost jobs once the pandemic shut down the city.

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, said that signal was outperformed by the noise.

“I’m a little worried that some of the original messaging might have led people to believe that everyone had until May 1,” said Goldiner. “We’d rather not have people in housing court filing a declaration. It’s not the end of the world, but it would be better if forms were filed and sent in the first place.”

Going through various community organizations, members of The Legal Aid Society and others hoped to get the word out and let tenants know what’s at their disposal. If they can’t do it, however, other officials are joining the fray.

This Thursday, The Legal Aid Society, Citizens Actions of NY, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (who sponsored New York’s recent legislation mandating an eviction moratorium for tenants facing COVID-19 hardship) are holding a news conference, via Zoom, to urge tenants to submit the forms in order to avoid housing court.

Despite officials meeting through Zoom on Thursday, Goldiner would like political bigwigs to get involved too.

“We’d like to see the state take a more active approach,” said Goldiner. “Likewise, we’d like the city to take a more proactive approach.”

City Hall officials did not respond to requests for comment. Goldiner said courts sent notices to almost everyone on file including those who didn’t need it.

“[The court] sent out notices to people who had pending cases and it scared them,” said Goldiner. “Even when it went to people who needed to do something, it wasn’t written in a way that people understood. Our clients called us. [From their perspective] anything from the court is bad news.”

Farkas said the hassle over moratoriums and requests to stall eviction is the best demonstration for a new approach to housing issues.

“…It also shows the need for policies like universal rent forgiveness and cancellation; asking tenants to fill out forms or applications is always going to be a slow and arduous process and not everyone is going to get the information or help they need,” Farkas said.