For most of the pandemic, New York state has maintained a strict eviction moratorium, a safeguard that many elected officials and housing advocates say has prevented a cascading crisis in a state with an enormous number of struggling renters.
Even as nearly every other state or federal moratorium ended, New York's protections were extended time and again. Only in New Mexico has a statewide moratorium been in place for as long.
But New York is now approaching a perilous milestone. On Saturday, state officials are set to let the moratorium expire, making way for a long-feared rush of evictions cases that many worry will seed widespread social upheaval and strain New York's recovery from the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, about one-quarter of the state's households occupied by renters spent more than half their income on rent and some utilities. In New York City, where many renters live, the problem is even more acute, with one-third of households in that category.
The pandemic only made things worse. The state has received more than 291,000 applications for a pandemic rent relief program since last summer, reflecting the vast number of people behind on rent. That program has nearly run out of money.
"It's a moment of a lot of uncertainty and precariousness," said Siya Hegde, policy counsel to the civil action practice at Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit legal services group that has been representing tenants in court.
It is not known how many people may be at risk of evictions after the moratorium ends, but before the pandemic, landlords in New York City filed far more evictions than any other major American city, according to Princeton University's Eviction Lab. Nearly 140,000 evictions cases were filed in 2019.
Many politicians and housing groups agree that the moratorium was only meant to be a stopgap during an extraordinary crisis. But its end marks a pivotal moment, setting the stage for a fraught political battle.
If an eviction crisis does occur, it would be a formidable challenge for Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, who has made housing a centerpiece of her agenda as she prepares to run for a full term in November.
She has been pressured by many landlord groups, who have lost substantial amounts of rental income during the pandemic and who have felt the moratorium was too heavy handed and easily abused. She has also faced searing criticism from her party's left wing for allowing the moratorium to expire without supporting sweeping new eviction protections.
Hochul said this week that she and state lawmakers were discussing next steps. On Thursday, she and the governors of California, New Jersey and Illinois sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department calling for more rent relief to states with high numbers of renters.
Elected officials and housing advocates worry that the end of the moratorium could reverberate far beyond housing court, leading to an uptick in crime, homelessness, mental health issues, coronavirus outbreaks and more. A moratorium on commercial evictions and foreclosures also ends on Saturday.
Agustina Vélez, 41, is certain that she would have been homeless without the moratorium.
She lost her job cleaning homes in 2020 when the pandemic hit New York. Her husband lost his job as a cook. They struggled to pay the $1,300 monthly rent for their studio apartment in Corona, Queens, where they live with their two sons.
They have both since found some work, but they owe more than $8,000 to their landlord. At one point during the pandemic, he told them he wanted to evict them.
"I'm so afraid that one day I'll come back and all of our belongings will be outside of our building," Vélez said. "We live with that fear."
Reached by phone, her landlord said he was not immediately available to talk.
New York also has many landlords with only a few properties who without a steady rental income have faced their own financial pressures.
"It's time to end the eviction moratorium and put an end to tenants skipping the rent because there are no repercussions for not paying," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents some 25,000 landlords of rent-stabilized units in the city.
State and local officials around the country are trying to find ways to keep people in their homes.
On Wednesday, the mayor of Seattle extended an eviction moratorium through mid-February, citing the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Last week, New Mexico's court system announced a new pilot program to encourage landlords and tenants to tap into rent relief funds and avoid evictions.
It's not clear what will happen in New York housing courts after the moratorium ends. After the Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden's eviction moratorium in August, many parts of the country saw a gradual increase in cases, though levels remained below pre-pandemic levels, according to a December analysis of eviction filings from the Eviction Lab.
Given the expiration of the federal moratorium, "this is a better place than I think many people would have expected," said Peter Hepburn, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and a research fellow at the Eviction Lab.
That may be because many landlords have managed to weather the pandemic, in part because they cut expenses, according to several studies. Government aid programs, like the more than $46 billion rent relief effort, have also helped.
But there are reasons to think it could be worse in New York.
The state has the nation's highest share of renters, and New York City's rebound has been sluggish: Its unemployment rate in November was 9%, more than double the national rate.
The hope for more federal funds to replenish the rent relief program looks dim, even as applications continue to pour in. State officials estimate that more than 100,000 applicants could be left without aid.
But New York still provides strong tenant protections, including free representation in housing court for New York City tenants. A separate state law passed during the pandemic prevents evictions in some cases for those facing financial hardship. Though the state's rent relief program is largely tapped out, simply applying for rent relief essentially shields renters from being evicted while the application is pending.
Left-leaning Democrats are pushing the state Legislature to pass a sweeping measure known as "good cause eviction," which would limit the reasons landlords could use to evict tenants, protecting those who cannot afford "unreasonable" rent increases.
Similar legislation failed last year and in 2019, and Hochul has not divulged her position.
"If nothing is done, and after the eviction moratorium expires, it is only a matter of months before New York grapples with an unprecedented eviction crisis," dozens of state and local elected officials wrote in a letter to Hochul this week.
But many landlords say they need to start collecting rent to pay their own bills, and to maintain their properties.
Sharon Redhead, who owns five buildings in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and has more than 50 tenants, said she has lost about 30-40% of the rental income during the pandemic. She used a $50,000 loan to help pay for heating, water, maintenance and other costs.
She has arranged informal payment plans with most of her tenants who owe rent. Several have successfully applied for rent relief. But one tenant, in particular, owes more than $11,400 - a year's worth of rent - and has refused to apply for aid.
"Housing court is the only option for people who are not cooperating," she said.
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