David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

New York State’s eviction moratorium ended on Saturday, January 15th, on what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 93rd birthday. At least 226,000 households across the state will now be thrown into disarray as the city’s eviction machine begins churning again. 

Even before the moratorium terminated, landlords were busy preparing. Those in New York City had already filed more eviction cases since March than landlords in any other major American city, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.  The 81,530 eviction filings were spread across the City’s most populous boroughs: the Bronx (28,541 cases filed); Brooklyn (21,152); Manhattan (15,405); and Queens (14,814). With the moratorium lifted, there is nothing stopping those landlords from proceeding to put families on the street, in the third winter of the COVID pandemic. A terrible crisis is brewing.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was no stranger to housing crises. About a week after his birthday in 1966, he and his family moved into a tenement apartment on Chicago’s west side, launching the Chicago Freedom Movement, which sought to take on discriminatory real estate practices across northern cities. To achieve this major goal, the Movement set on what may seem like mundane strategies: talking to the city’s tenants, organizing tenant unions, and bringing attention to broken locks and faulty radiators.

The Movement’s organizers understood that landlords held all the cards in the city’s Black neighborhoods: tenants had to put up with drafts, rat infestations, and more, because the threat of expulsion to an even worse apartment, or out onto the street, was a constant presence. 

Unfortunately, some things haven’t changed in the last 54 years. The threat of eviction remains a powerful tool in the landlord arsenal. Many landlords evict not simply to recoup back rent, but to retaliate against tenants who organize around building conditions and to clear out long-term tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods. We also know the U.S. real estate market remains plagued by racism: our research shows that between 2017 and 2019, tenants living in majority Black zip codes were more than three times as likely to be evicted as tenants living in majority white zip codes. 

During the pandemic, rents rose at a higher rate for low-income tenants of color than for low-income white tenants: 49 percent of Asian tenants and 41 percent of Black and Latinx tenants experienced rent increases, compared to 32 percent of white tenants. But even where their apartments rapidly became unaffordable, eviction moratoriums kept families from homelessness. That is about to change, unless Albany acts.

Scope of the Problem

While there was no good time to end the eviction moratorium, this is a particularly bad moment. Pandemic-related assistance, enhanced unemployment benefits, and other aid programs such as expanded child tax credit payments have ended while city hospitals and emergency rooms are nearly overrun due to Omicron variant surge.

Tens of thousands of NYC households are now behind on rent, a statistic which may not capture the scope of a bigger humanitarian problem ready to explode in the coming weeks. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found that New Yorkers behind in their rent increased from 898,000 Labor Day week to 1.4 million in the latest data. The data also revealed that 807,000 households sometimes or often lack enough to eat, and 355,000 said they were “not at all confident” they could pay January’s rent. Putting households on the street risks an increase in homelessness, which is already at the highest levels in New York City since the 1930s Great Depression. 

New York State has obligated all $2 billion of its federal rent relief funding, covering roughly 161,000 payments to landlords, but about 85,000 applications for rent relief remain unfunded.  Last month, the Hochul administration requested $996 million in additional federal funds. The governor’s office said NY would receive an underwhelming $27 million in additional funding.

Governor Hochul sent a letter last week to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, co-signed by the governors of Maryland, Illinois and California, requesting an emergency allocation. There are grounds for the allocation, because New York tenants are struggling, as are small landlords who might have a brownstone with one rental unit or a three-flat apartment house. They are missing months and months of back rent they may never receive.

Pass `Good Cause’ Eviction Protection 

At a minimum, New York should immediately adopt the `Good Cause’ Eviction bill, which requires property owners to prove `good cause’ — such as nonpayment or damage to an apartment — to evict tenants. The bill would give tenants the right to an automatic lease renewal in most cases, cap rent increases for existing tenants, and prevent landlords from removing a renter without a court order, even if their lease has expired or they never had a lease. 

Sadly, we’re still fighting many of the fights Dr. King waged during his legendary career as a civil rights activist, including improving housing conditions for the working poor. Passing `Good Cause’ eviction protection will give tenants a fighting chance against retaliatory evictions. We urge our Democratic Legislature and Governor to act on this legislation. 

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 175 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

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