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

New York City housing court is literally bursting at the seams just two months after the COVID-era eviction moratorium was lifted. Court data shows a wave of 18,000 new eviction filings so far this year on top of a backlog of 200,000 pending cases. 

Not surprisingly, New York’s eviction crisis did not go away when protections expired that kept countless needy families in their homes for most of the pandemic. Rents are surging. Inflation is spiraling. The emergency simply shifted to the courts.

With tens of thousands of households behind on rent, this is an important moment for City Hall and the State Legislature to help at-risk tenants navigate the courts, as well as to prepare for the next phase of the eviction crisis.

In the rush to clear the case backlog, the city’s Office of Court Administration is scheduling cases so quickly that tenants barely have time to secure an attorney, according to testimony at a recent City Council hearing.  

What’s alarming is the pending eviction case count does not include at least 32,000 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) households behind on their rent and facing possible eviction. The agency, which was owed more than $364 million in back rent from 2021, thankfully last month dismissed all but 2,300 of the cases.  That decisionadverted an even bigger court and humandisaster.

New York court officials must delay – or at least slow the pace of  – eviction cases so eligible tenants can take advantage of New York City’s “Right to Counsel.”  The program was established in 2017 to provide publicly funded eviction lawyers for low-income families.  Under the program, a family of four that earns less than $55,000 a year qualifies for free legal representation in an eviction case. 

Now is the time to expand “Right to Counsel” statewide. My organization, Community Service Society (CSS), estimates 332,000 additional households would become eligible, including 186,000 in New York City, by a small increase in the income threshold to also make moderate-income families eligible for pro bono lawyers.

Another important step would be full implementation of Local Law 53, which requires the city to work with advocacy groups to educate renters on Right to Counsel.   Non-profit, labor unions and social service groups can effectively get the word out to households most in need of help, as well as expand the ranks of pro-bono lawyers.

Albany should also immediately take up the Good Cause Eviction bill, which would require property owners to prove “good cause” — like nonpayment — before evicting tenants.   The bill would give tenants the right to a lease renewal in most cases, allow tenants to challenge unreasonable rent hikes in court, and prevent landlords from removing a renter without a court order, even if their lease has expired or they never had a lease.

An old-fashioned political street fight is shaping up over the bill. Major commercial landlords, under the clever name Homeowners for an Affordable New York, hired a lobbyist as part of a well-financed opposition to the anti-eviction measure, which would cover more than a million tenants. 

Something must give. New York State’s federally-funded emergency rent program exhausted all $2 billion of its funding and needs another $2 billion to satisfy pending applications. As a stopgap, some renters applied for One Shot Deal, a city program that offers temporary loans to those facing eviction. But the program’s rules prevent most renters from qualifying.

There is a disturbing racial element to the eviction crisis: At the end of last year, a startling number of people of color in New York City reported they were behind on their rent and at risk for eviction, according to CSS’s 2021 Unheard Third survey.  The survey found that Black renters were also twice as likely as whites to have no rainy-day savings to fall back on.

In fact, as of early last month, U.S. Census Bureau data showed 13 percent of Black New Yorkers believed they were likely to be evicted in the next two months. That’s compared to seven percent of all New York renters surveyed and just four percent of white tenants.

NYCHA showed good judgement in discontinuing 32,000 pending cases. The city’s public housing authority is the largest single source of affordable housing in a city that desperately needs more of it, with more than 320,000 applicants on a wait list for public housing and Section 8 vouchers, according to the agency. The latest NYCHA figures show the average family income is $25,602 a year, and rent –  which is generally capped at 30 percent of a tenant’s income – averages $548.

We must strengthen NYCHA and protect its residents. The last thing New York City needs is the eviction contagion spreading to public housing. Casting NYCHA households into the streets in mass would be a sign that New York City’s affordable housing emergency has crossed a precarious red line.

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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