Articles from December 2020



2020 Year End Appeal — Please Make A Generous Contribution to Mt Vernon United Tenants

Mt. Vernon United Tenants (MVUT) is a 501(c)3 organization, meaning that people can make fully “tax-deductible” donations to us. Now we know that most of our  members and friends do not have much money are unable to make a sizable tax-deductible contribution to MVUT. However, maybe some of you know someone who can? A relative, a friend, a co-worker, etc.?

Why not ask them if they’d like a nice tax deduction before the end of the year? lf someone can do that, we’ll provide the appropriate documentation that they can use for their tax purposes. We’re enclosing a return envelope for such a donation, or even a smaller one if that’s what you’d like to give.  (Mail contributions to:  Mt Vernon United Tenants, P.O. Box 2107,  Mt Vernon, NY 10551.

We don’t have to remind people about how difficult a year it’s been with the pandemic. We’re all struggling here to continue to provide the essential services we always do. As hard as it has been, we have persevered and are looking forward to continuing the fight into 2021 .  It promises to be a scary time as the moratorium on evictions will end early in the New year and we expect to be literally overwhelmed with cases of people facing eviction who are months behind in rent through no fault of their own. 

So please try to help us identify people who may be able to make a large tax-deductible donation, or if not, please contribute whatever you can! 

THANKS AND BE SAFE! 

SUPPORT TENANTS’ RIGHTS!! 

SUPPORT AFFORDABLE HOUSING!!

SUPPORT MVUT!!

December 14, 2020

Download MVUT Year End Appeal 2020

New York Bans Most Evictions as Tenants Struggle to Pay Rent

Credit…Scott Heins/Getty Images

Cross-posted from the New York Times

The Legislature, addressing hardship caused by the pandemic, convened an unusual special session between Christmas and New Year’s to pass the measure.

The New York Legislature on Monday overwhelmingly passed one of the most comprehensive anti-eviction laws in the nation, as the state contends with high levels of unemployment caused by a pandemic that has taken more than 330,000 lives nationwide.

Tenants and advocacy groups have been dreading the end-of-year expiration of eviction bans that have kept people in their homes even as they fell months behind in their rent. Under the new measure, landlords will be barred from evicting most tenants for at least another 60 days in almost all cases.

The bill would not only block landlords from evicting most tenants but would also protect some small landlords from foreclosure and automatically renew tax exemptions for homeowners who are elderly or disabled.

The Legislature convened an unusual special session between Christmas and New Year’s to pass the measure, acting quickly because the governor’s executive order barring many evictions was slated to expire on Dec. 31. The legislators’ urgency reflected a national concern over the fate of millions of people without jobs and access to job opportunities, as the pandemic continues to eat away at the economy.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wasted no time in signing the bill, which goes into effect immediately.

The passage of the bill comes as a relief for renters like Vincia Barber, a 40-year old tenant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who said she lost her job as a nanny and hasn’t paid rent in months.

“This is the best thing they could do for us today,” said Ms. Barber, who added that two of her relatives had died of the coronavirus.

Once the bill becomes law in New York, tenants like Ms. Barber can protect their homes by submitting a document stating financial hardship related to the coronavirus. As many as 1.2 million New York households are currently at risk of being removed from their homes, according to a database maintained by Stout, a consulting firm.

For eviction cases that are already working their way through the courts, the law will halt proceedings for at least 60 days. Landlords would not be allowed to begin new eviction proceedings until at least May 1.

Some landlords resisted the measure, arguing that the law didn’t adequately distinguish between tenants with resources and those without. They said the new law paid too little heed to property owners who are themselves grappling with diminished financial resources, as tenants fall behind on rent and ground-floor retail tenants go out of business.

The legislation attempts to address those concerns by making it harder for banks to foreclose on smaller landlords who are themselves struggling to pay bills.

The state’s emergency action comes after President Trump signed on Sunday a $900 billion relief package, which included $1.3 billion in rental relief for New Yorkers and extended a federal eviction moratorium — and two days after unemployment benefits expired for millions of Americans. The state and federal legislation speak to the precarious financial situation facing millions of Americans, nine months into the pandemic.

Nationally, an estimated 7 million to 14 million households are at risk for eviction, according to Stout’s database. They are thought to be short between $11 billon and $20 billion in rent.

Other states have taken steps to delay evictions as well. Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut has extended that state’s ban until Feb. 9. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington extended an eviction moratorium until March 31.

New York and the other states acted to plug holes in a federal moratorium that housing advocates say does not do enough to protect tenants from losing their homes. The requirements to qualify for eviction protection are considered onerous, and several states took their own action.

The New York Senate approved the new measure 40 to 21 on Monday, while the State Assembly voted 99 to 4

What makes New York’s new law exceptional is its reach: It eases the process for tenants and small landlords to claim financial hardships and eliminates hurdles for disabled and older homeowners to renew tax exemptions.

In New York State, even under Mr. Cuomo’s order, eviction proceedings have continued, but landlords have largely been barred from physically removing tenants from their homes. A smattering of evictions resumed in October, particularly for those tenants who were unable to convince judges that their financial hardships were related to the coronavirus.

As of late November, there have been 38 requests for eviction warrants in New York City, according to a recent analysis by the New York University Furman Center. Every one of those cases began before the pandemic and most involved properties in central Brooklyn.

Since October, Zellnor Myrie, a state senator representing central Brooklyn, has had at least three eviction warrants issued in his district. The most recent warrant was issued for a tenant who was unable to pay rent.

“So even with the constellation of moratoria, there have still been landlords going after tenants,” said Mr. Myrie, a sponsor of the legislation.

As of November, 8 percent of New York State residents were unemployed, more than twice as many as this time last year. State labor department figures indicate that the unemployment rate in New York City is significantly higher. Small businesses and their employees in Manhattan’s core have been especially hard hit, as commuters have all but vanished.

Winsome Pendergrass, 63, a tenant and activist from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, lost her main source of income providing in-home care. Three months behind in rent, she said the legislation will bring her some relief.

“I myself suffer from high blood pressure and I don’t want to be running out there and overexert myself in the pandemic, because the money I am coming up with is just to pay the rent,” she said.

But landlords argue the bill oversteps, allowing tenants to avoid eviction by merely stating financial hardship rather than proving it.

“With no requirement of proof that the Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected their income, and no income limitation to qualify for eviction protection, a tenant whose household income went from a half-million dollars to $250,000 would qualify for eviction protection by declaring that their income has been ‘significantly reduced,’” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.

The new state law will allow evictions to proceed in cases where judges find tenants have persistently created a nuisance for neighbors, like playing loud music at 3 a.m., or created hazardous conditions.

The hardship declaration would not only cover financial hardship but also a “significant health risk” of moving in the pandemic.

The law also seeks to address the plight of landlords who own 10 or fewer apartments, allowing them to file similar financial hardship declarations with their mortgage lenders, to delay foreclosure proceedings. The law also applies to foreclosures involving tax liens.

Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, said that while he understands the legislators’ desire to focus on smaller landlords, the law is unnecessarily narrow.

“The reality is a majority of renters in this city get their housing from what the legislature would consider non-small operators,” said Mr. Martin, whose organization represents landlords of rent-stabilized buildings. “Even a four- or five-story walk-up has more than 10 units in New York City.”

Since March, the governor, the state’s courts and the legislature have instituted a series of sometimes overlapping measures designed to forestall evictions during a crisis that has thrown millions out of work, and made it untenable for many tenants to pay rent. Tenants’ inability to pay their landlords has, in turn, made it difficult for some property owners to pay their own bills.

But the ever-shifting state rules and court guidance have sown substantial confusion among renters seeking to make sense of the legal morass. Tenant attorneys have also expressed displeasure with how some housing court judges interpret the law.

More than elsewhere, courts in the Albany region and in Rochester “have been remarkably unsympathetic to tenants’ situations,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

The new law is by no means a panacea. Tenants will continue to owe landlords any back rent they haven’t paid, once the moratorium ends.

The $1.3 billion in rent relief authorized by the federal government should help, tenant advocates say, but it will not be enough to cover all tenants’ back rent.

Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, a tenants rights group, praised the law as “very close” to everything his organization wanted, but also warned that “when this is all lifted, there will be people owing thousands and thousands of back rent they cannot pay.”

NY renters face pandemic evictions ahead of Christmas, even with moratorium. What to know.

Cross posted from the Journal News
New York State Team
December 21, 2020

In the leadup to the holiday typically associated with joy, Florence-Yarde, 40, had been readying to be evicted and removed from her three-bedroom Rochester townhouse with no place to go during a deadly pandemic.

Despite the uncertainty, Florence-Yarde admits: “This is the second holiday season that I haven’t had normalcy for my children.”

Last December, rodent infestation in the townhouse sent them fleeing to a motel in the night. Mice and rats scampered through her townhome, eating through her clothes and chewing at her Christmas tree.

She would decide to take action against her landlord by withholding rent.

Florence-Yarde’s woes come as millions of Americans could be at risk of being evicted in the next several months, despite state and federal protections aimed at helping them.

That’s significantly lower than the three-year average of nearly 70,000, but the concerns amid the pandemic are severe.

Despite the government protections, housing advocates point to the fact that the measures do not apply to all tenants and don’t stop landlords from filing eviction cases, leaving renters in a position where they can be evicted and removed from their home in the pandemic.

In the case of Florence-Yarde, she has no protection from COVID-19 eviction moratoriums because hers is a so-called “holdover eviction,” meaning it is happening for reasons other than non-payment.

“The sad part about this is some (landlords) are not paying taxes, are not paying mortgages, because they get to use COVID as an excuse,” she said. “But then to their tenants, they’re coming down with this iron fist.”

A patchwork, not a unified approach

Clianda Florence-Yarde, has withheld rent from her landlord for many months after a series of issues she has had with the townhouse she rents on Glasgow Street in Rochester. An outlet burned in one of her children's rooms and they had to move out for a period of time and live in a hotel while that was taken care of.

A federal moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been extended to Jan. 31 as part of the new stimulus package set for congressional approval this week.

On the state level, New Yorkers have some protections under the Tenant Safe Harbor Act. The law protects those whose cases began after March 7 for the duration of the pandemic, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order extending the same protections through Jan. 1 for tenants with cases that began before then.

Both depend on tenants paying thousands of dollars in back rent that they will likely not have and actively taking steps to assert that protection, Marika Dias, managing director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, said.

With the CDC moratorium, a tenant must submit a particular statement to their landlord, she said. With the current eviction protections in New York, it must be asserted in court.

In many cases, the tenants who receive the filings, she said, do not have the legal training to mount complex arguments and executive orders, then assert the right defenses and produce the right evidence.

More:To lure renters, landlords cut costs, fees, add gift cards amid pandemic, analysts say

Facing uncertain housing in New York

Signs outside an apartment building as activists from City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester try to stop an eviction of a woman and her family.

In Harlem, Mbaye Lo has been praying for his house. It’s where he retreated in March when his work as a handbag vendor on the streets of New York City froze as the nation hit pause, hoping that the coronavirus would pass him over.

And more recently, the apartment that he shares with his wife and six of eight children ranging from elementary school-aged through adulthood is where he received an eviction notice saying he owed around $10,000 in back rent.

Realizing that he was not alone in the process, he began working with organizer Ben Rosenfield of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, attending tenant meetings, knocking on doors, speaking with other West African renters in the building on how they can improve conditions in their during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s amazing to see how willing people are to fight for themselves and their neighbors, Rosenfield said.

“In these buildings, people are just, from the outset, ready to put a lot on the line in order to improve conditions for themselves and one another,” he said.

With that, he said, there still needs to be a real eviction moratorium that stops people from being displaced during the pandemic and a way for them to pay back rent.

Even as Lo and his tenant group make progress with some repairs, the threat of eviction still looms. He’s hoping that his landlord will work with him and give him a payment plan when the pandemic is over.

If that doesn’t work, Lo admits, he has “no idea” where his family would go.

More:March to polls: New York protesters seek inroads at ballot box after summer filled with unrest

Impact on communities of color

Shayla Black, 28, spoke about the eviction case against her from when she was struggling to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic even though there was an eviction moratorium in place, Dec. 18, 2020 in her Harlem apartment. The whole process inspired her to start a tenant association in her building.

Black and brown households are more deeply affected by the rent and eviction crisis than others.

Studies across the country found that eviction rates in communities of color, both before and during the pandemic, far outpaced those in other neighborhoods.

In New York, 23% of Latino tenants say they have no confidence that they can make next month’s rent payment, compared to 14% of black tenants, 6% of white tenants, and 6% of Asian tenants, according to a Households Pulse survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau over a two-week period over late November to early December.

In January, Shayla Black, also of Harlem, thought that she needed a change, so she left her job in the magazine industry in search of new opportunities. Then, the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country, thwarting her job search.

Black, 28, said she was near the wire. The back rent kept growing. Money was running out. Everyone was looking for a job. And, Black said, she wasn’t ready to choose between eating and other necessities to pay rent.

“You’re just told in a society, like, you pay your rent by any means necessary,” she said. “So, I was ready to pay my very last to pay my rent. But how would I pay my electric (bill)? How would I get food? These are the things we have to consider.”

In October, a notice was slipped under her door. She needed to pay back thousands of dollars in rent, or she might have to leave, despite the protections. Other people in her building got the same paperwork.

Although Black has since gotten another job, she continues to advocate for renters in her building who need renovations and may be displaced. But the uncertainty has stayed with her.

“It’s a scary prospect to see that someone’s trying to take your home away from you in the middle of a pandemic,” Black said.

More:A federal eviction moratorium expires Dec. 31. What does that mean for NY tenants?

Stories of being potentially displaced during a pandemic

Christopher Green who rents an apartment on Brown Street in Rochester is trying to find an apartment to live in on December 17, 2020. He had a job but lost it due to COVID effecting businesses and was unable to pay rent for months. Green was going to be evicted but he has been given some time to find a new place to live. A huge sign, “Eviction Free Zone” is stretched across the building. The other side of the building is a business.

Before the pandemic, 48% of rental households in the nation were already “rent burdened,” or paying more than 30% of their income towards rent, according to the 2018 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The majority of renter households below the poverty line spent at least half of their income toward rent in 2018, with one in four spending over 70% of their income toward housing costs, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data.

Then, the job losses and other economic fallout brought on by the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to pay rent.

Now between 640,000 and 1.2 million renter households in the state are estimated to be at risk of eviction, according to recent data by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm.

The estimated shortfall of rent for New Yorkers by January ranges from around $1.3 billion to $2.2 billion.

Nationally, the rent shortfall is expected to be around $13.2 billion to $24.4 billion, according to Stout.

However, Moody’s Analytics asserts that past rent debt could balloon to nearly $70 billion by the end of the year.

On Sunday, Congress struck a deal on a $900 billion stimulus package that extends the CDC eviction moratorium through Jan. 31 and sets aside $25 billion in emergency rental assistance.

That’s far less than the $100 billion in emergency rental assistance that the National Low Income Housing Coalition called for.

Diane Yentel, the organization’s president and CEO, said the last week the money is a step in the right direction and that the lawmakers need to work toward more comprehensive solutions in January.

Eviction and removal from a home, she said, tend to have far-reaching emotional and economic consequences on families. It can show up on credit scores, make it difficult to maintain a job and make it arduous to secure affordable housing.

“It creates this spiraling down into poverty, … into this hole that can become very difficult for families to climb back out of,” she said. “That’s because having just a single eviction filing on somebody’s record can make it much more difficult for them in the future.”

More:Stimulus checks and unemployment: Congress reaches deal. What it means for you.

Moratorium may be a ‘false hope’

Christopher Green pushed his landlord to fix broken windows, gaping holes and a rodent infestation in his Rochester apartment earlier this year by withholding a portion of his rent — then he lost both his jobs due to COVID-19.

Now his landlord wants him out.

But he has nowhere to go.

Days before Christmas, he’s waiting, unsure if police and marshals will try to remove him and his two brothers from the apartment, again. Last month, they came to evict them, but a local tenant union rallied around him.

“I’m just walking through it day by day, every day,” he said. People think the moratoriums are broadly helping those in danger of eviction due to financial impacts from COVID-19. They are not, he said.

Green, 24, had tried invoking the eviction moratoriums at the federal and state levels during a fall court date, but a judge told him he didn’t have enough proof that he’d lost work, and therefore his situation didn’t apply.

“In September, I was one of the six people who were getting evicted — now I’m one of over 100 people who are getting evicted,” he said.

The moratoriums, which are often perceived as a stopgap for all evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, offer empty promises for some tenants.

“It’s a false hope,” Green said.

Sentiments such as those have led the Housing Justice for All, the Metropolitan Council on Housing and other groups to push for a state bill that would provide universal housing moratoriums.

Groups are also advocating for measures to cancel rent during the crisis, with financial support for landlords.

“While people negotiate in Washington, we need to keep people housed,” Cea Weaver, a Housing Justice for All campaign coordinator, said, adding that “the best way to do that is a moratorium that protects homeowners, small business owners and renters and kicks the cost of not accepting the rent to banks.”

Christopher Green who rents an apartment on Brown Street in Rochester is trying to find an apartment to live in on December 17, 2020. He had a job but lost it due to COVID effecting businesses and was unable to pay rent for months. Green was going to be evicted but he has been given some time to find a new place to live. He points out issues with the bathroom and recounted how a squirrel had dropped out of the ceiling on him while he was in the bathroom.

The banks, she said, have the most liquidity and flexibility.

Landlords aren’t blind to the fact that nearly everyone experienced financial or logistical upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Joe Hanna, managing partner at Hanna Properties LLC in Rochester, which rents 400 units in town and has been in the business for 50 years.

Some of Hanna’s tenants came to him for rent negotiations this year after job losses, and he made concessions for them on the amount and timing of payment.

But to ask landlords to bear a universal moratorium or forgive rent isn’t sustainable or fair, he said.

“If I’m not collecting rent on a two-family house, I still have to pay for heat, taxes, and repairs,” he said.

Every month, he’s watching several more of his tenants become unable to pay rent, he said. As a larger landlord, he can more easily absorb that cost, but smaller landlords can’t.

“Now you have a vicious cycle…the landlord isn’t maintaining (the unit,) the tenant is upset, and he isn’t paying, then the landlord is in worse shape and on it goes,” Hanna said.

“And we haven’t seen the worst of this yet.”

Jody Moraski of New Hampton in Orange County owns three rental properties and four tenants – two of whom are behind on rent.

Moraski said she has no plans to take any action, even though one tenant is three months behind. She knows both tenants are struggling because of the pandemic, and homeschooling has made it impossible for one to get back to work.

The mortgage companies might have to give property owners extensions, but the bill will come due down the road, Moraski said, and that’s just one piece of the puzzle for landlords.

“You still have to do the repairs if something happens. You still have to pay the taxes,” she said. “There’s no way to make it fair; there’s no way to make it easy. How do you make it that one person doesn’t get the brunt of it?”

Middle-class people are getting pinched by job cutbacks and the toll on business; people with low income are hit with layoffs and financial troubles.

“There’s no win,” Moraski said. “There’s just no solution.”

More:New York minimum wage will increase on Dec. 31 as planned

Looking forward for tenants, landlords

An activist with City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester, puts up a sign outside an apartment building as the group tries to stop an eviction of a woman and her family.

Professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi, director of NYU’s Urban Democracy Lab, likened the nation’s response with a patchwork of moratoriums and a lack of funding for renters more like “a stay of execution rather than a solution.”

“I don’t think the United States has ever seen anything like this, except maybe for the (Great) Depression,” Baiocchi said of a possible eviction crisis should nothing be done to assist renters.

There’s going to be a wave of evictions, followed by deferred maintenance on rental units as landlords lose profits, he said.

Then, he predicts, private equity investors are going to swoop in and buy the distressed properties, flip them and raise rents, much like what happened to houses in the 2008 financial crisis.

 “We know that private equity has hundreds of billions of dollars at the ready and people are expecting a bonanza of profit,” he said.

To avoid the worst in the long-term, Baiocchi and other researchers are calling for the creation of the Social Housing Development Authority that would acquire distressed properties and finance their transfer to the vast, existing social housing sector.

The proposed federal authority would then transfer the properties to community land trusts, nonprofits, and cooperatives.

The researchers hope that this approach will improve housing, halt a crisis of eviction, stop the gentrification of minority communities while also providing landlords of the properties an economically viable exit.

“If there’s ever a time for us to act on housing and look at permanent fixes for what has been a long-standing problem, I think this is it,” he said.

After the infestation problems went too far, Florence-Yarde said she started withholding her rent of around $1,150 a month. Her landlord, John Trickey, alleges she stopped paying rent in the summer of last year.

When the two went to court in February, Trickey said, he didn’t want back rent. He wanted her to leave.

Months later, following court closures at the height of the pandemic, Trickey said the parties have reached an agreement that wouldn’t require Florence-Yarde to pay him back rent — which he alleges totals $17,000 — but would force her to leave the property.

Trickey acknowledged the code violations, including a rodent problem in the unit, but said he attempted in good faith to fix them, while Florence-Yarde has refused to pay him what he is owed.

“I bent over backwards,” Trickey said. “If a tenant doesn’t think the place is safe, they have recourse. They can find a place and move out.”

Florence-Yarde hasn’t been able to find a house she can afford that accepts her credit. Meanwhile, her children keep asking her where they will go and what will they do in the future?

“I have no stability for them,” she said last week.

On Friday, Florence-Yarde was removed from her home and jailed after a judge found her in contempt for not vacating the property.

More:Young people 5 times more likely to catch COVID if they vape, study says

Contributing: Times Herald-Record staff writer Heather Yakin. 

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers Yonkers. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac

Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network’s New York State Team. Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo.