NY renters face pandemic evictions, even with moratorium

Shayla Black, 28, talks about the eviction case against her from when she was struggling to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic even though there was an eviction moratorium in place, Dec. 18, 2020 in her Harlem apartment. The whole process inspired her to start a tenant association in her building. (Tania Savayan - The Journal News)

Clianda Florence-Yarde knew she wouldn’t be able to give her three sons something for Christmas that they yearned for: normalcy.

In the leadup to the holiday typically associated with joy, Florence-Yarde, 40, had been readying to be evicted and removed from her three-bedroom Rochester townhouse with no place to go during a deadly pandemic.

Despite the uncertainty, Florence-Yarde admits: “This is the second holiday season that I haven’t had normalcy for my children.”

Last December, rodent infestation in the townhouse sent them fleeing to a motel in the night. Mice and rats scampered through her townhome, eating through her clothes and chewing at her Christmas tree.

She would decide to take action against her landlord by withholding rent.

Florence-Yarde’s woes come as millions of Americans could be at risk of being evicted in the next several months, despite state and federal protections aimed at helping them.

In New York City alone, there have been nearly 30,000 private eviction filings between June 20 and Nov. 29, according to the New York University’s Furman Center.

That’s significantly lower than the three-year average of nearly 70,000, but the concerns amid the pandemic are severe.

Despite the government protections, housing advocates point to the fact that the measures do not apply to all tenants and don’t stop landlords from filing eviction cases, leaving renters in a position where they can be evicted and removed from their home in the pandemic.

In the case of Florence-Yarde, she has no protection from COVID-19 eviction moratoriums because hers is a so-called “holdover eviction,” meaning it is happening for reasons other than non-payment.

“The sad part about this is some (landlords) are not paying taxes, are not paying mortgages, because they get to use COVID as an excuse,” she said. “But then to their tenants, they’re coming down with this iron fist.”

A patchwork, not a unified approach

A federal moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been extended to Jan. 31 as part of the new stimulus package set for congressional approval this week.

On the state level, New Yorkers have some protections under the Tenant Safe Harbor Act. The law protects those whose cases began after March 7 for the duration of the pandemic, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order extending the same protections through Jan. 1 for tenants with cases that began before then.

The state protections and the CDC moratorium are both expected to expire in a few weeks. But even before that, researchers, housing advocates and legal experts argued that they were a patchwork that leaves renters in a precarious situation, even after the virus is brought under control.

Both depend on tenants paying thousands of dollars in back rent that they will likely not have and actively taking steps to assert that protection, Marika Dias, managing director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, said.

With the CDC moratorium, a tenant must submit a particular statement to their landlord, she said. With the current eviction protections in New York, it must be asserted in court.

In many cases, the tenants who receive the filings, she said, do not have the legal training to mount complex arguments and executive orders, then assert the right defenses and produce the right evidence.

Facing uncertain housing in New York

In Harlem, Mbaye Lo has been praying for his house. It’s where he retreated in March when his work as a handbag vendor on the streets of New York City froze as the nation hit pause, hoping that the coronavirus would pass him over.

And more recently, the apartment that he shares with his wife and six of eight children ranging from elementary school-aged through adulthood is where he received an eviction notice saying he owed around $10,000 in back rent.

Realizing that he was not alone in the process, he began working with organizer Ben Rosenfield of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, attending tenant meetings, knocking on doors, speaking with other West African renters in the building on how they can improve conditions in their during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s amazing to see how willing people are to fight for themselves and their neighbors, Rosenfield said.

“In these buildings, people are just, from the outset, ready to put a lot on the line in order to improve conditions for themselves and one another,” he said.

With that, he said, there still needs to be a real eviction moratorium that stops people from being displaced during the pandemic and a way for them to pay back rent.

Even as Lo and his tenant group make progress with some repairs, the threat of eviction still looms. He’s hoping that his landlord will work with him and give him a payment plan when the pandemic is over.

If that doesn’t work, Lo admits, he has “no idea” where his family would go.

Impact on communities of color

Black and brown households are more deeply affected by the rent and eviction crisis than others.

Studies across the country found that eviction rates in communities of color, both before and during the pandemic, far outpaced those in other neighborhoods.

In New York, 23% of Latino tenants say they have no confidence that they can make next month’s rent payment, compared to 14% of black tenants, 6% of white tenants, and 6% of Asian tenants, according to a Households Pulse survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau over a two-week period over late November to early December.

In January, Shayla Black, also of Harlem, thought that she needed a change, so she left her job in the magazine industry in search of new opportunities.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country, thwarting her job search and halting her unemployment benefits as the filing system became overwhelmed with applications.

Black, 28, said she was near the wire. The back rent kept growing. Money was running out. Everyone was looking for a job. And, Black said, she wasn’t ready to choose between eating and other necessities to pay rent.

“You’re just told in a society, like, you pay your rent by any means necessary,” she said. “So, I was ready to pay my very last to pay my rent. But how would I pay my electric (bill)? How would I get food? These are the things we have to consider.”

In October, a notice was slipped under her door. She needed to pay back thousands of dollars in rent, or she might have to leave, despite the protections. Other people in her building got the same paperwork.

Although Black has since gotten another job and paid her back rent, she continues to advocate for renters in her building who need renovations and may be displaced. But the uncertainty has stayed with her.

“It’s a scary prospect to see that someone’s trying to take your home away from you in the middle of a pandemic,” Black said.


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