As many as 400,000 families across New York City could end up in housing court as the coronavirus takes a toll on people’s health and finances.
The legal actions could take place as the state’s eviction moratorium partially expires this week and negotiations in Washington over a new federal aid bill stalled.
“We have to prevent people from getting evicted,” said Judith Goldiner, the top attorney at Legal Aid. “What are we going to do when 400,000 households lose their apartments and become homeless?”
The moratorium — she added — provides tenants “a bridge, while Washington dithers.”
There are some protections for tenants.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in June that creates a new defense in housing court for tenants struggling economically during the coronavirus crisis. Judges can now bar an eviction if renters can prove their nonpayment of rent stems from financial hardship that began after the outbreak of COVID-19.
“You have to affirmatively make this case for yourself, it doesn’t just happen,” said Goldiner, pointing out that tenants would have to assemble tax returns and other paperwork to prove the loss and find an attorney to argue their case.
That’s especially difficult for New Yorkers whose jobs largely deal in cash, like delivery workers, handymen, cleaning ladies, babysitters, and contractors.
“It’s an important protection, but it’s not going to save everyone,” she said.
A study by New York University’s Furman Center revealed there are 279,000 working-class families in the Big Apple who rent and received the now-expired $600 weekly boost in unemployment benefits from the federal government to pay their bills.
It projected that another 111,000 blue-collar tenant households were hit hard financially by the virus but did not qualify for the federal aid, likely putting them at severe risk of eviction.
And there are 14,000 families who were in the middle of eviction proceedings when the pandemic hit, which left their cases in limbo as the courts shut down.
The cash-crunch will likely hit households across the country with more than 30 million unemployed and politicians on Capitol Hill sparring over the future of the $600-a-week unemployment boost.
Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion bill that would continue the payments, while Republicans in the Senate have proposed a new formula that would cut assistance to $200 a week before the transition to a new formula that would pay 70 percent of prior earnings.
“Both my partner and I have lost our jobs from the COVID pandemic. We work in event production,” said Ariel Lembeck, a 33-year-old who lives in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, who was protesting the partial resumption of evictions outside the Kings County housing court on Tuesday. “Events are ceasing to exist in the near future.”
With no gigs possible in the near future, she’s been banking on the expanded federal unemployment benefits to help pay the bills.
“The additional supplement of the $600 was crucial to continue paying my rent and maintain the basic necessities of my life,” she added. “I’m really terrified not only for myself but for the community at large.”
Cuomo’s office defended the legislation in a statement and added that the three-term governor “has continuously made it a priority to provide assistance to struggling New Yorkers.”
— Additional reporting by Bernadette Hogan