Gotham Gazette

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New York Must Halt Evictions Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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People need secure housing for themselves & others (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

No one is immune to the novel coronavirus: The World Health Organization recently declared the outbreak a pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, and the congressional doctor reportedly expects up to 150 million citizens to be infected.

Do you know who is most vulnerable to COVID-19? Health professionals have identified people who are elderly and sick as particularly at risk, but we must not forget those who are poor or homeless. New York City has the largest homeless population in the country, and our homeless shelters are ill-equipped to deal with a highly contagious disease. Now is the time for New York to act by protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Our government can mitigate this growing public health crisis in several ways. One is that New York State should institute an eviction moratorium immediately. Eviction moratorium plans are already underway in San Jose and San Francisco -- and many more cities are expected to follow.

An eviction moratorium in New York is the bold and sensible action we need. Taking this important step not only gives reprieve to thousands of tenants from becoming homeless, which is necessary in itself, it would also slow the growth of this pandemic. As studies have shown again and again, good housing policy is truly also good healthcare policy.

As a housing attorney, I see thousands of people pass through New York City housing court daily. These tenants are disproportionately poor, black and Latino, immigrants, LGBT people, seniors, people with disabilities, and women. In fact, New York City’s Open Data Portal shows over 3,000 executed evictions have taken place since January 2020. Each eviction places already vulnerable seniors and people with health issues -- their families and everyone they come in contact with in the court system -- at further risk.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has urged New Yorkers to limit nonessential commuting, but how do we expect thousands of tenants to heed this call when they must commute to work to try to make rent? Or commute to court or risk losing their home there? How do we expect poor people, who may be exhibiting symptoms of infection, to self-quarantine, when there is nowhere to quarantine if they lose their home? We need an eviction moratorium now.

Legal services organizations, and the unions representing thousands of attorneys, paralegals, and advocates, have reached out to Governor Cuomo and Chief Judge DiFiore of the Office of Court Administration to implement measures to: stay warrants of eviction, adjourn cases rather than issuing defaults, and provide litigants with the opportunity to appear by videoconferencing. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition has called on the governor to close housing court, except for applications for emergency relief. These requests are still pending.

As the pandemic grows, so does the growing chorus of advocacy groups demanding an eviction moratorium. A recent online petition, organized by the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance and Housing Justice for All, garnered over 2,000 signatures in one day alone. And, there is mounting momentum among elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who issued a public letter calling on Chief Judge DiFiore to declare a moratorium on evictions immediately. State Senators Brad Hoylman and Brian Kavanagh are introducing legislation to enact a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the coronavirus pandemic and future emergency declarations.

While we wait on Governor Cuomo, the State Legislature, and Chief Judge DiFiore to act on the state level, Mayor de Blasio can act on the city level. The mayor can and should institute a moratorium on all NYCHA eviction-related cases in public housing. During Hurricane Sandy, NYCHA instituted an eviction moratorium in response to the urging and advocacy of The Legal Aid Society. In addition to the eviction moratorium we saw during Hurricane Sandy, the precedent exists in the winter months for broadly similar reasons raised now regarding public health concerns of homelessness and the real risks to life.

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting some of the greatest inequalities in our society. On the national level, we are hearing the demand for large-scale programs such as national paid sick leave and Medicare for All. Given the state of our federal government, these are worthy long-term goals that, at the moment, are theoretical responses to the current crisis. In the meantime, there is at least one simple and immediate proposal on the table right now in New York: an eviction moratorium, and we can get it done immediately.

Jason Wu is a housing attorney for The Legal Aid Society of New York and a Trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325. On Twitter @CriticalRace.

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