Evictions in New York accelerate after two years of decline

In New York, where landlords typically move to evict more people than any other city in the country, housing courts have been in an unusual stupor for about two years. But as pandemic restrictions ease, they’re starting to buzz again.

The nearly 2,000 eviction cases filed by landlords each week since March represent about 40% more than the number filed in mid-January, after the state’s eviction moratorium expired. According to city data, renters have been evicted from homes in more than 500 cases since February, about double the number in all of the previous 20 months.

Judges are increasingly asking tenants to appear in court after months of remote interactions. Lawyers representing landlords are frustrated, cases are not moving any faster, while lawyers defending tenants cannot cope with an increasing workload.

The courts bear little resemblance to the frenetic, pre-pandemic past, when lines of beleaguered tenants spilled around the block and crowded hallways featured raucous settlement talks.

The number of cases is still below pre-pandemic levels.

On a recent Thursday, the benches in a Brooklyn courtroom were mostly empty, with just a few lawyers mingling in deserted hallways as tenants lined up in a cramped waiting room in what was once one of the busiest courts in the city.

But after the pandemic pushed thousands of people to the brink of losing their homes, the surge in activity raises questions about the housing system’s ability to continue to avert a wider dislocation crisis, as the Soaring rents once again underscore the city’s affordability challenges. , and whether some of the ugliest features of the city’s longstanding housing crisis, such as the chaotic justice system, are about to return.

Already, a crucial new protection – a free legal representation service – is reaching breaking point, tenant advocates say.

For years, almost all landlords have used lawyers in Housing Court, unlike the majority of tenants – a power imbalance that many felt was unfairly left tenants vulnerable to eviction. A new municipal law was passed in 2017 to provide free lawyers to low-income people and came into effect last year.

But several nonprofits tapped by the city to represent tenants, grappling with staffing shortages and rising cases, say they’re not ready to meet the need. A court spokesperson said last week that legal groups had refused to take on nearly 1,400 cases since March.

In Brooklyn, for example, Legal Services NYC has had about 25 lawyers handling cases under the program since 2019. But compared to February and March of this year, the number of cases in those months this year has doubled. to reach more than 300, the group said.

Several attorneys resigned and the group struggled to hire and train enough new attorneys in a tight labor market, said Raun J. Rasmussen, the group’s executive director.

“Right now, we’re really trying to catch every May law graduate who doesn’t have a job, and we’re all competing with each other to do that,” he said.

To cope, Legal Services NYC limited its cases last month in Queens and the Bronx and stopped accepting new cases in Brooklyn. The Legal Aid Society, another nonprofit, phased out taking new cases in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn last month.

“The fear today is that many tenants will not be fully represented by a lawyer at a time when we are trying to come out of the pandemic,” said Adriene Holder, chief civil practice lawyer at Legal Aid Society. .

The groups called on the courts to slow down the scheduling and pace of cases moving through the system.

Courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said last week that the number of scheduled appearances in cases was down 41% from the first quarter of 2019, and the number of new cases filed was down by 62%.

He said a slowdown “wouldn’t accomplish anything” as new cases would continue to pile up.

“Are legal service providers really all of a sudden going to have a revelation and be able to provide representation in all of these cases?” he said.

The city’s new law was intended to help tenants like Damian Winns, a security guard, who moved into a one-bedroom apartment in East New York just before the pandemic hit. At $1,200 a month, it was one of the few places he thought he could afford.

But Mr Winns, 44, has struggled to find work during the pandemic, and missed a few months’ rent last year. He thought a pandemic rent relief program was paying for the missed months.

Instead, Mr Winns found himself in a hearing at a downtown Brooklyn courthouse last week after his landlord decided to evict him, saying he still owed the money.

“Where am I supposed to go? Mr. Winns said in an interview.

Although he may have been entitled to a free lawyer, no one was there to take his case, and a court official told him that a legal group should reach out before his next hearing this month – may -be.

New York’s Housing Courts, located in a handful of buildings and offices across the boroughs, were created by the state nearly 50 years ago to enforce housing code and keep homes from falling apart. . But most of the cases have almost always been eviction proceedings for unpaid rent.

Fifty housing court judges are appointed by New York’s chief administrative judge for five-year terms, based on recommendations made by a panel of representatives from tenant advocates, the real estate industry, and the bar, among others.

New York City has a reputation for being relatively tenant-friendly: eviction cases can take months or longer, compared to days in other parts of the country. But the large number of cases has prompted criticism that the justice system is overburdened.

In one year in the mid-1990s, landlords filed over 316,000 eviction cases. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were over 171,000 cases. Currently, there are about 75,000 active cases in the system, Mr. Chalfen said.

Eviction cases in the social housing system, which amounted to tens of thousands of cases each year before the pandemic, have been largely halted. The eviction moratorium and a massive rent relief program, which paid $1.8 billion to settle the rent debt of more than 140,000 households, also eased the number of cases.

Yet the legal process remains confusing for both landlords and tenants.

At a recent hearing in Brooklyn, Salvatore Candela, an attorney representing a landlord of a three-story apartment building in Flatbush, expressed disappointment when a judge set a new court date for June to give more time to one of the tenants to find a lawyer. .

The owner, Robinson Cadet, a retired corrections worker, could go another month without rental income, after saying he already owes $57,000 over the past year and a half.

“It makes me feel like the whole system is against me,” Cadet said.

Meanwhile, Sasha Portilla, a taxi dispatcher, appeared in a Queens courtroom earlier this month after her landlord said she had overstayed her lease and decided to l ‘expel. It was her first time in housing court, she said, and she feared her eviction could happen within days.

For at least 30 minutes, Ms Portilla, 32, watched another case unfold virtually on a TV screen as a court official struggled to find remote interpreters to translate between a Mandarin-speaking landlord and a tenant who spoke Spanish.

When it was Ms Portilla’s turn, she asked a court official how soon she could be deported. A court worker said there are still several steps in the process and a pro bono lawyer should, in theory, reach out before his next hearing in May, to help him through the process, but to tell a judge if it didn’t happen. .

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” she says.

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