Courts could face avalanche of eviction cases

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The moratorium on rental evictions in New York has kept landlords from evicting anyone who was unable to cover rent as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed the deadline into early September, extending the lifeline just a little further for people falling behind. 

In July, 32 percent of Americans, mostly renters, did not make a full, on-time housing payment, compared with 24 percent in April, Apartment List research shows. 

Some are expecting an avalanche of residential eviction cases to hit the court system—even though a law passed in June says residential tenants can never be evicted for nonpayment of rent since March 7 if they suffered financial hardship during the pandemic. 

“During the pandemic period, March, April, May, June, July, there would have already been about 4,000 cases filed,” says Mark Muoio, program director of the Housing and Consumer Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester. When he first started in 2009, Muoio saw roughly 6,500 eviction filings. By 2018, that number was almost 9,000.

“We’re expecting just as many cases to be filed in 2020, between 8,000 and 9,000,” Muoio says. 

To stave off the tide, and try to keep people in their homes, Muoio, with some help from Rochester City Council, is trying to make sure anyone facing eviction will have representation. Before the pandemic, not enough time and too few lawyers made that impossible, but a combined effort by the Legal Aid Society, Legal Assistance of Western New York and the Volunteer Legal Service Project could help tenants across Monroe County. 

“What we’re trying to do is build a system that would allow every person to get represented at Rochester City Court, in the town of Greece, the town of Irondequoit and the village of East Rochester. Those areas were picked because we have court systems in those areas willing to work with us,” Muoio says. 

Funding would come from the federal CARES Act. City Council could award $460,000 to the Volunteer Legal Services Project to start the pilot program. But the vote won’t be held until Aug. 18—two weeks before the moratorium is set to expire. 

Another concern is the complexity of the executive orders surrounding COVID-19. City Councilmember Mitch Gruber says the courts have been tight-lipped about how they plan to handle the cases. 

“I was reading one (order) and in the middle of the order it said, ‘to clarify …’ It needed to clarify itself,” says Gruber, who worries that judges will have varied interpretations of the laws, leading to varied outcomes for tenants. 

Alexander and Javon Solomon, who moved to Rochester six months ago with their daughter, are faced with this uncertainty. Javon was laid off because of the pandemic. They’ve struggled ever since to keep their heads above water financially. 

“When you’re doing everything you can, all day, to make sure you’re not dipping into your rent, it’s hard,” Javon says. “Our landlord was so upset because he was losing out on money too. It’s a big mess.” 

The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, passed in June, prevents any evictions for people who were financially impacted by the pandemic from March 7 until the date when all COVID-related restrictions on non-essential gatherings and public and private businesses are lifted in the county where the tenant resides.

“They can’t be evicted, but they can still be taken to court and a money judgment could still be laid against them,” Muoio says. 

The Solomons are not outliers. More than half of New York households are reporting a loss of employment income. The couple has had to rely heavily on a single paycheck, and sometimes $50 they get from donating plasma to the Red Cross. Neither has gotten them out of the hole and they’re worried about what comes next. 

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people and one thing that’s very clear is when the moratorium ends, it will not benefit anyone to have a wave of evictions. Not tenants, landlords, or the fabric of our city,” Gruber says.

Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that Rochester’s fabric is made of more than 60 percent renters. How many will face legal action after Aug. 20 for failure to pay rent remains to be seen. 

Vanessa J. Cheeks is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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