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Evictions on Hold Until Oct. 1, but Pre-Pandemic Housing Court Cases Forge Ahead

Protesters decry looming eviction proceedings at Brooklyn housing court, Aug. 6, 2020.
Protesters decry looming eviction proceedings at Brooklyn housing court, Aug. 6, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

State court officials on Wednesday extended until Oct. 1 a freeze on residential evictions, begun in March in response to the pandemic — but some tenants still remain on the brink of losing their homes.

Cases filed in Housing Court before March 17 will proceed, both online and potentially in person, with a court ban on final warrants of eviction tenants’ only safeguard.

That means those residents could be among the first wave of New Yorkers evicted once the moratorium expires, lawyers and other advocates for tenants said.

“Those who had warrants of eviction before the pandemic, those are the most immediately vulnerable,” said Shekar Krishnan, chief program officer of Communities Resist, a legal services nonprofit focused on housing. “They are at risk now of eviction cases being brought against them.”

The economic crisis spurred by coronavirus-related shutdowns have only made tenants’ situations more precarious, said Krishnan.

“Tenants are absolutely terrified when they get served with eviction papers,” Krishnan added. “You can imagine how that fear is astronomically higher during a pandemic like this and when they can’t pay rent.”

There are 200,000 pending eviction cases in New York City that were filed before March 17, according to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the New York State Office of Court Administration.

Feeling Helpless

Many of the tenants first in line to be evicted are in court because their landlords claim they hold no valid lease.

Some told THE CITY that they feel helpless and unsupported by the government and the court systems. As video conferences for their cases have resumed, they say the threat of eviction looms larger by the day.

Shale, 53, a home health aide who lives in Jamaica, Queens, was unable to agree on a lease renewal with her landlord, Zara Realty.

For the past three years, Shale, who requested that her last name not be used, has lived in a studio owned by Zara.

Her court case, which began in spring of last year, is now complicated by her recent inability to pay her $1,450 rent. She is currently unemployed.

“Where can a single person like myself really go that’s affordable?” Shale said in Bengali through an interpreter. “Where can we live in peace?”

Tenant advocates protest looming eviction proceedings at Brooklyn Housing Court, Aug. 6, 2020.
Protesters at Brooklyn housing court, Aug. 6, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Zaribel Batista, 40, is represented by Queens Legal Services and has been fighting her eviction from her Woodside apartment since October, when her landlord filed suit claiming that she didn’t have a valid lease.

A court hearing originally scheduled for March 15 was delayed four months, but the case has now continued.

The landlord wants her out this month. Batista, currently with family in Florida, said she tested positive for coronavirus last week — leaving her unable to travel back to pack up her apartment and find a new home.

“Where is the support for people who are getting evicted? Is this the time right now for people to get evicted? We shouldn’t even have to be worried about that right now,” Batista said.

“For things to change for us to be heard, the people that really need it, what else needs to happen before we get the help that we need?”

Altanacio Ortiz, a 65-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, said the uncertainty surrounding his eviction case, which has been ongoing since 2015, has caused him debilitating anxiety.

“I felt more stressed and at times even was sick because of the condition of really not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing what to expect,” he said in Spanish, via an interpreter.

Ortiz has lived in a rent stabilized sixth-floor walk-up unit in Williamsburg since the late 1980s. He said his monthly rent for his two bedroom apartment is $474, in a building that has advertised similarly sized units online for more than $2,700.

He said he feels “constantly harassed” by the eviction case brought by his landlord, who contends the Brooklyn apartment is not Ortiz’ primary residence.

Judges Gain Discretion

Roughly 14,500 eviction orders are currently on hold in New York City, Chalfen said. .

Each of these are warrants issued by the court prior to the pandemic-driven shutdown of New York courts. The warrants represent the last step before a city marshal serves a 14-day eviction notice, after which a tenant may be ejected from a property.

The new court system order, signed by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, states that these outstanding warrants cannot be executed without an additional conference before a judge.

The order also says that proceedings should be virtual “whenever the court deems it appropriate,” assuaging attorneys’ concerns that in-person hearings could pose health risks.

Sateesh Nori, a housing attorney with Legal Aid, said the order represents the “clearest guidance to date about what’s going to happen to 14,000 tenants and their families who’ve been in limbo.”

“It’s the first time that the court system has put more power in judges’ hands to be human beings and to exercise their discretion in dealing with many of these cases in which nobody wants people to be evicted,” Nori added.

Susanna Blankley, coordinator of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, said that the court’s latest order isn’t a permanent solution, but does give tenants a bit of relief.

The court’s March 16 stay on evictions previously had no outlined end date and was renewed on a near-monthly basis, resulting in confusion and uncertainty for tenants and advocates.

“It gives us a little more breathing room and gives us until the fall, hopefully the state will be back in session and we can push what we need,” Blankley added. “People are not going to have their jobs back by Oct. 1.”

Advocates are pushing the passage of several bills that have been recently introduced in the state Legislature. One would cancel rent until 90 days after the end of New York’s pandemic state of emergency. Another would implement an eviction moratorium that would extend for a year past that milestone.

Aid in Works

An estimated one in four of the city’s 5.4 million tenants didn’t pay rent from April through June, according to a survey by Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord trade group.

In mid July, the state rolled out a rent relief program that would provide one-time assistance for eligible families experiencing rent burden and income loss, paying subsidies directly to landlords. The deadline for applications expired last week.

Brian Butry, a spokesperson for the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal, said that more than 90,000 applications were received from eligible tenants and that staff was “working diligently to process the applications.” He said there was no timetable for when payments would begin.

Organizers have criticized the state’s $100 million program for being inaccessible and overly restrictive with its requirements for documenting income and proving rent burdens.

Rima Begum, a tenant organizer with Chhaya CDC, said that about 60 members of the Bangladeshi Tenant Union, many of whom are self employed, applied for aid. All were denied for not meeting eligibility criteria, Begum said.

Carlos Ortiz, a tenant organizer at Catholic Migration Services, called receiving the assistance a “one-in-a-thousand shot,’’ adding that it was no panacea.

“The burden is on the tenant to prove so many things, and yet to compete with each other for a very small and partial assistance that leaves them with debt,” Ortiz said. “This is not like a blank check that writes off your rent debt.”

Rent Strike

Advocates said that landlords have begun responding to ongoing rent strikes with court action. Last week, Queens-based Zara Realty began at least 10 eviction cases based on nonpayment across two buildings in Jamaica, Begum said.

Zara representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

More than 25 tenants who live at buildings in Jackson Heights and Corona owned by real estate agency BRG have been on rent strike for months.

Some tenants at this building on 168th Street in Jamaica are facing eviction.
Some tenants at this building on 168th Street in Jamaica are facing eviction.
Christine Chung/THE CITY

Many residents say they are unable to pay because they’ve lost their jobs. Multiple tenants said they are afraid they’ll lose their homes, too.

“There’s a lot of worry amongst tenants because there isn’t any protection for us. We’ve been affected emotionally and physically during this pandemic and it’s going to get worse when courts open,” said Sabina Rodriguez, who rents in Jackson Heights. “This is affecting us badly.”

Marivwey Ramirez, a tenant leader in the Jackson Heights building owned by BRG, is a nail salon worker whose wages have been decimated. She has been on a rent strike since April. BRG did not respond to a request for comment.

“The owners are profiting from us and we have rights. They are earning tons of money notwithstanding our rent strike even inside of the pandemic,” said Ramirez. “We needed the money to pay for food.”

Translation by Leanne Tory-Murphy, Rima Begum and Lucas Renique

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