Pol Position: Fixing broken housing policies

Some of it was to be expected

When emergency legislation that placed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic expired, so did the patience of several NYC landlords, who flooded the courts with thousands of eviction lawsuits between February and March.

Since the moratorium expired in January, more than 13,000 new eviction cases have been filed, adding to a backlog of more than 200,000 pending cases that were put on hold.

Because of this The Legal Aid Society and NYLAG have stated that due to the exorbitant demand, attorneys will not be able to take new cases in Queens for the month of April, potentially leaving tenants to appear without proper representation.

But the issue doesn’t just stop in Queens. Legal Aid says it expects to reach full capacity in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan soon unless action is taken to address the court’s overload of eviction cases.

The simple solution

Legal service groups suggest that if the New York State Office of Court Administration were to cap eviction cases at a reasonable volume, it would help to ensure eligible tenants are given adequate representation.

“We are disappointed that OCA has not only refused to acknowledge this post-pandemic demand, but is seemingly okay with calendaring cases where tenants appear without legal representation, essentially gutting New York’s historic Right To Counsel initiative,” Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the civil practice at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “It would be irresponsible and unethical for us to continue to take new cases while our staff is overwhelmed.”

Tenants put at-risk

NYS Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recently adopted $220 billion budget included funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which was developed to assist low- and moderate-income tenants with rental payments and utility arrears accumulated during the pandemic.

Applying for the program guarantees tenants are provided with certain protections while the state decides on their application, essentially freezing the possibility of foreclosure for a temporary period of time.

Because of this first-time foreclosures were at a historically low figure outside of the pandemic. According to a report from Property Shark, there were only 87 foreclosures registered in the five boroughs – a stark difference from the 687 in 2020.

Relief for renters spells headaches for landlords

The situation became mutually frustrating for landlords and small property owners looking to collect back pay from tenants, who have been granted a 180-day grace period through the ERAP application process.

The program only provides up to 12 months of back rent, or three months of future rent, to the landlord which can oftentimes be insufficient to cover the entirety of the debt.

Although New York State does provide a Landlord Rental Assistance Program, for landlords whose tenants were unwilling to apply for the ERAP, the system has not accepted applications since November 2021 due to a lack of available funding.

Unlike tenants, who may be struggling financially to make ends meet, certain landlords who fall under the agreements set by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board are provided with property tax abatements from the city to make up for the cost of the exemption.

In addition to the rent freezes provided by the ERAP, state legislators are pushing for additional programs for seniors and the disabled which, provided a tenant meets necessary requirements and their landlords agree to rent increases approved by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, would provide exemptions from some rent increases and other costs for eligible rent-regulated apartments.

The fight continues

While low-income tenants continue to struggle with the looming threat of possible foreclosure, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board, which sets annual rent adjustments for rent-stabilized apartments, recently released a report recommending rent increases, calling for a 2.7 to 4.5 percent increase for a one-year lease, and 4.3 to 9 percent increase for a two-year lease.

Supporters argue that this would cover inflationary costs. However, this is being built on the backs of tenants, who are being left to foot the bill. Tenants living paycheck-to-paycheck are already seeing it at the gas pump, in the grocery stores, and now they’re going to see it reflected in their rent check on the first of every month.

“Any proposed increase, let alone one of severity, would have a crushing impact on some of our city’s most vulnerable residents,” Holder said, condemning the recently announced rent hike. “Under Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg, real estate enjoyed rubber-stamped, steep rent increases from the Rent Guidelines Board, allowing landlords to line their pockets while our clients were pushed from their homes, many into local shelters. In recent years, the Board has worked to correct this imbalance, but one still remains, and this recommendation would further tip the scale.”

The housing system in New York City is broken from top-to-bottom. Considering that the number of lawyers available is insufficient to deal with the overflow of applications and lawsuits, it has become incumbent upon the state Office of Court Administration to do the right thing and pause the scheduling of foreclosure proceedings that are heavily impacting low-income tenants in predominantly Black and Latinx communities.

This is further exacerbated by landlords, property managers, and brokers who discriminate against renters with housing subsidies. According to City Limits, after years of employee departures and unfilled vacancies, the enforcement unit tasked with cracking down on complaints from would-be renters who say they were denied an apartment because of a government subsidy, does not have a single staff member left.

It’s an embarrassment to the city and state government that law-abiding, tax-paying citizens are under constant threat of foreclosure. Something needs to be done. The entire system is broken.