We hear from a lot of tenants who are afraid of losing their homes during the pandemic. (We also hear from a lot of small landlords who are worried, too. If you’re a small landlord, here are some resources.)
When we teamed up with our friends at Documented — a nonprofit news organization that focuses on New York City’s immigrants and the policies that affect their lives — we started getting questions about what rights tenants have if landlords threaten to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
So we made some calls. Here’s what we learned:
Every tenant in New York has the same rights
Samantha Lyons, an immigrant tenant attorney at Catholic Migration Services, which provides legal help for immigrants in Queens and Brooklyn, said her office has “seen a lot of landlord behavior threatening to call ICE.”
Jennie Stephens-Romero, supervising housing attorney at Make the Road, a service provider and advocacy organization for immigrant and working-class New Yorkers, said: “We have seen a slight uptick in harassment based on immigration status during the pandemic. Landlords know that’s a vulnerable point.”
“Those communities were decimated at the beginning of the pandemic,” Lyons said. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of loss, a lack of work, it’s been really traumatic for a lot of people.”
If a landlord threatens to call immigration authorities…
Lyons said: “No matter what your landlord says to you, they cannot evict you without a court order.”
There is one exception: If you live in a unit that doesn’t meet city code requirements — such as some basement apartments — the city could serve you something called a “vacate order.” These units are not protected by the moratorium.
Not sure if you’re living in an illegal basement apartment? You can call 311 and ask for the tenant helpline to speak with a housing advocate.
Are my tenant rights different if I’m not a citizen?
No. Immigration status does not affect the your rights as a tenant in New York, including in rent-regulated apartments.
Citizenship status and national origin are protected categories under New York City’s Human Rights Law. That means it’s illegal for landlords (as well as employers and providers of public services) to discriminate against someone based on their real or perceived citizenship status or national origin.
So a landlord can’t use immigration status or what they think the immigration status is against a tenant to get them to move out?
Exactly. Any time a landlord mentions what they think your immigration status or national origin is as a way to intimidate you, that’s probably tenant harassment and discrimination. So, they could be breaking housing law and human rights law in the city. This also includes any abusive language, slurs, suggesting you go back to the country you immigrated from or threatening to call ICE, according to Stephens-Ramos.
Can a landlord ask about immigration status?
No. A landlord even asking about or making any decision about whether or not to rent to you, raise your rent, renew your lease or kick you out based on your immigration status could be discrimination, which is illegal.
Both Stephens-Romero and Lyons said that if you think your landlord may be harassing you, it’s important to keep as much evidence as you can. Save any text messages, emails, letters or voicemails, and perhaps share a copy with a trusted family or friend, Stephens-Romero said. She also recommended recording any interactions with your landlord.
You have a few options for action
You can sue your landlord for harassment and bring them to Housing Court. Even with the eviction moratorium, harassment cases are still moving forward.
You can start the case yourself by filling out the form at JustFixNYC here.
You also can call 311 to ask for the tenant helpline to connect with an attorney. In addition, New York City has a hotline for immigration resources called ActionNYC. You can call 1-800-354-0365 to connect with an advocate who can help you.
New York City’s Commission on Human Rights focuses on protecting people from discrimination and making sure everyone’s rights are respected. You can report your landlord to this agency. Agency officials respond to complaints and can help you understand whether your rights are being violated. The agency can also issue fines, bring cases to court and offer trainings and other resources to stop instances of discrimination.
If you think your landlord is discriminating against you, you can call the Commission on Human Rights at 212-416-0197.
When you call, you can stay anonymous and ask questions before you decide whether to file a complaint. You will not be asked about your immigration status.
What can happen if a tenant reports a landlord?
If you file a complaint against your landlord, said Kathie Carroll, assistant commissioner for the Commission on Human Rights, an attorney will contact your landlord to explain the city’s discrimination laws to them. The attorney will let the landlord know their behavior is illegal and warn them they could face legal consequences and big fines.
If the landlord does not stop the discriminatory behavior, Carroll said, the commission can file a claim. Attorneys will then conduct an investigation and try to reach an agreement with the landlord. If that doesn’t work out, the commission can bring the landlord to court.
Some landlords have been hit with fines as high as $17,000 for threatening a tenant with a call to ICE, Carroll said. The commission can also require landlords to undergo different training sessions and restorative justice programs.
Are there resources to help pay back rent if a tenant is undocumented?
Besides the resources listed above, there’s a privately funded rent assistance program called Project Parachute that helps tenants regardless of immigration status. It’s funded largely by the Real Estate Board of New York and the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, and is being run by Enterprise Community Partners.
Since August, Project Parachute has paid full rental arrears for 473 households, and 85% of those applicants have been undocumented.
You can apply through the city’s Homebase eviction prevention program providers. See which Homebase provider is in your ZIP code here, or you can call 311 and ask for Homebase.
Meanwhile, rent is still due, and the eviction moratorium is only in place until May, if you fill out this hardship declaration.
Lyons from Catholic Migration Services said: “There are just so many stopgap measures, and it’s frustrating to not have information on what’s happening. Knowledge quells anxiety, and unfortunately we don’t know what the future looks like.”
What else we’re reading…
- Gothamist reported on housing court moving cases along after the pause on evictions ended.
- City Limits laid out how the city’s housing crisis will impact the mayor’s race.
- Law360 explained the next phase of Housing Court.
- The Real Deal reported about a prank post online claiming that a landlord’s trade group wanted to cancel rent.
For homeowners: We also get a lot of questions from homeowners who rent out a unit or more. We’re working on answering these questions for a future update. If you’re a homeowner who rents to tenants who haven’t been able to pay during the pandemic, we want to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this email.
For tenants: We get a lot of questions from tenants. We do our best to find answers. Please keep sending your questions, concerns and ideas to email@example.com or just reply to this email.
If you’re facing eviction now or are worried about losing your housing and want to tell us about it, fill out this questionnaire.