NEW YORK -- Housing activists in New York have spent much of the year preparing for the end of it. Tenant evictions have been halted or delayed by coronavirus relief measures, for the most part, until January.
If those measures are allowed to expire -- or aren't extended -- it could mean the displacement of thousands of families this winter.
"The kind of massive evictions that we could be looking at given the number of people who have not been able to pay their rent is pretty horrifying," said Judith Goldiner, head of the Legal Aid Society's civil law reform unit, which pushes for more statewide protections for low-income New Yorkers.
It's a national problem: Evictions are set to shoot up around the country, according to the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The number of those who say they are unable to pay rent has grown exponentially, exacerbated by millions of job losses. Landlords, in turn, have said they have had trouble keeping up with mortgage payments and other expenses. In New York City, where homelessness has already reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, the fight over keeping people in their homes is set to boil over.
Housing activists, many of whom participated in protests against police violence this summer, have begun working with tenant groups and nonprofits to stall evictions by showing up en masse to housing court, pressuring the state Legislature and enacting eviction blockades.
On Friday evening, while the temperature hovered around 19 degrees, more than 50 activists gathered outside a row house in Rochester, N.Y., to protest the eviction of a tenant and her three children. (The laws passed this year in New York did not protect all tenants from eviction, and court dates for evictions began again in October.)
The protesters blocked the door to the police who were in charge of emptying the apartment. The police arrested 15 people, including Demond Meeks, a state assemblyman and former housing activist who was observing the blockade. "I truly believe that housing is a human right," Meeks said.
Despite the effort, the tenant, Clianda Florence-Yarde, a sixth-grade teacher, was evicted, along with her children. The family is now split up, living at different homes.
Many New Yorkers who were unable to pay rent this year were shielded from eviction by state and federal measures.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention temporarily barred evictions for many tenants across the country -- a moratorium that was extended through January as part of a $900 billion stimulus package passed by Congress on Monday, though it has yet to be signed into law.
But these acts did not cancel or curtail rent payments. Tenants who have not paid rent this year still owe the money.
That means that although evictions were kept at unusually low levels for the year, they are expected to surge. More than 200,000 eviction cases are pending in housing court in New York City alone.
Many landlords agree that a wave of evictions is a worst-case scenario. But although the state has already distributed $40 million in relief funds to them, representatives of landlord associations say more will be needed. Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group that represents about 25,000 landlords in New York City, said landlords are looking to the state to provide that aid.
"We understand that there has to be some kind of protection for tenants because of the economy and because of covid," Strasburg said. "But you're leaving the small property owners out of this process."
Activists want to avert an even greater homelessness crisis. In New York in March, they threw their weight behind a petition to close eviction courts that was signed online by 90,000 people. Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All, the coalition that sponsored the petition, said the action helped identify people across the state who were interested in housing activism. The petition also helped tenants unions and nonprofits get in touch with many more people who were not able to pay their rent.
"We have this big coalition of organizations that are working to put pressure on the landlords directly to reduce the rent burden," she said.
In Rochester in November, activists also formed a human chain to stop the eviction of Chris Green, a 24-year-old father of two who lost both of his jobs in the pandemic. These protesters were successful. Green remains in the premises.
"The community basically said you come for one of us, you come for all of us -- and prevented them from putting him and his family out," said Ryan Acuff, a member of the City-Wide Rochester Tenant Union, which helped organize the eviction blockade.
Acuff estimated that, if no legislation is passed to halt evictions, there could be up to 20,000 evictions in Rochester alone.