First Tenant Evicted in NYC since the Pandemic Started. Here’s What It Means

First Tenant Evicted in NYC since the Pandemic Started. Here’s What It Means

By Allison Dikanovic, THE CITY

Marshals recently carried out the first legal residential eviction in New York City since the start of the pandemic, THE CITY has learned. Here’s a breakdown of how that happened during the eviction moratorium and what the move could mean for renters going forward.

So someone was evicted during the pandemic?

Yup. The first legal residential eviction in the city since March — when the pandemic hit — took place Nov. 20, according to officials at the city Department of Investigation, which oversees marshals.

While we don’t have all the details yet (we’re working on it), we do know someone was removed from their home.

What does this mean? Housing advocates said that any evictions taking place right now signals that we should expect more, even with COVID cases rising.

Justin La Mort, a tenant attorney at Mobilization for Justice, said his organization has recently helped stop at least two evictions after tenants received a marshal’s notice.

We do know that for now, marshals are issuing these notices to people who lost their eviction cases before the pandemic.

Diane Struzzi, spokesperson for the Department of Investigation said: “Before an eviction can proceed, a court must have reviewed and concluded that the eviction can go forward, including that the tenant has not suffered financial hardship during the COVID-19 state of disaster. Eviction protocols are set by the court and by the Governor’s Office. The marshals must follow the court’s orders and directives.”

La Mort said: “Eviction is a form of violence and any eviction is a policy failure. The fact that we’re evicting people during the pandemic is extremely problematic.”

But isn’t there still a moratorium?

Not quite.

New York tenants still have some eviction protections — at least until the end of the year — but not a full blown moratorium.

One protection is a state law called the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which prohibits evictions against tenants who have suffered financial hardship during the pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded who this law covers, but it leaves a lot up to individual judges.

The other primary protection is the federal Centers for Disease Control moratorium, which bans evictions for nonpayment if tenants fit qualifications showing their inability to pay full rent because of the pandemic.

Both require a tenant to prove in court that they qualify for the protections, so neither is automatic.

Esteban Girón, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, said of last week’s eviction: “This is the perfect example showing that we don’t have a moratorium in place. It wouldn’t have mattered if this person had COVID or if they lost income. If they didn’t have an attorney and didn’t appear in court, they got evicted.”

Marika Dias, a tenant attorney and director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, said: “We really have reached a moment where it’s clear that the lack of political action does not just have hypothetical consequences, but it has the very real consequences that people are being put out of their homes in the middle of a pandemic. The last thing we want in the middle of the pandemic is more and more people being put out into the streets or in the shelter system or doubled up with another family.”

So why is this happening?

Well, it’s complicated.

When New York’s full eviction moratorium ended in October, instead of just carrying out all the evictions for tenants who received court judgments before the pandemic, the courts added an extra step to the process. Officials decided that any tenants whose landlords wanted to proceed with an eviction order could get another chance at a hearing when the courts reopened. This was a positive development for tenants.

If the tenants showed up to that hearing, they would have access to an attorney from the Right to Counsel program. If they didn’t make the hearing, the judge would schedule a second date.

But if they didn’t show up to the second court date, the tenants would lose by default and a marshal’s notice could be issued.

If a tenant has an attorney, they could block this eviction. But if that doesn’t happen, the eviction will go through. People in that situation and tenants who couldn’t prove to the judge that they qualified for COVID protections are those who can be tossed from their homes.

There are a lot of reasons a tenant might not appear in court.

Dias said: “Maybe they have COVID or health issues. Maybe the tenant didn’t understand how to participate without physically going to court and endangering themselves. Maybe they lacked access to technology or found the instructions to virtual participation not accessible. Maybe they had language access issues.”

La Mort said: “Those who fall through the cracks are most at risk because they’re not connected to services, and that’s really disheartening. There’s no need for this right now. It highlights the need for us to have a real eviction moratorium and a real program to assist tenants.”

So now what?

Cases are continuing to move through the courts, and legal service providers are working to make sure that any tenant who appears for their hearing has access to a lawyer.

Help: If your landlord files a petition to evict you, make sure you answer that petition. If you have questions about your case and want to get connected to a lawyer, call 311 and ask for the tenant helpline.

Following up on a past update: Why did 40,000 letters go to tenants?

Earlier this month, we wrote about how the courts’ messaging around rule changes for nonpayment cases was pretty confusing. First the courts told tenants they didn’t need to respond right away during the pandemic if their landlord filed a petition to evict them — but then the rules changed.

Tenants now have to respond to those petitions in order to avoid something called a default judgment — when they lose their case without having a say in it.

This confusion led to nearly 15,000 tenants not answering their petitions, putting them at risk of automatic default starting earlier this month.

Well, last week, the Office of Court Administration announced that it is working to clear up this confusion by sending 40,000 letters with updated information to folks with nonpayment cases.

Lucian Chalfen, spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, told Law 360“We are in the midst of sending out approximately 40,000 letters to respondents in nonpayment cases who have not answered their petitions providing them with information about alternatives to answering in person, among other things.”

This story was originally published on [November 24, 2020] by THE CITY.”

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