On August 3, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.) implemented a groundbreaking housing federal eviction moratorium in areas substantially hit by COVID infections, so as to ease the burden on public health control measures in the wake of the pandemic.
As innovative as the edict was, unfortunately the federal order came to an end less than a month later, on August 26, 2021, when the Supreme Court invalidated the housing mandate. The majority opinion stated, “The C.D.C. has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination…It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the C.D.C. the sweeping authority that it asserts.”¹ Regardless, a stay of execution was temporarily granted by New York Governor Kathy Hochul on September 2, 2021, extending the statewide moratorium until January 15, 2022.²
While the New York State extension of the moratorium brought much needed relief to tenants in crisis, the moratorium in New York was not extended beyond the January 15 expiration date, and with its expiration comes the departure of an important safety net in the battle to curb COVID transmission and the fight against housing inequality. New York, in particular, greatly benefitted from the eviction moratorium, as the state is home to the largest renting population in the country (largely due to New York City). New York State has 700,000 households behind on rent, only to be topped by California with its metric of 750,000 households.³ Although the struggles of tenants facing eviction are similar, some geographic differences on the impact of the eviction crisis are significant.
Specifically, the Bronx reigns as the most indicative example of tenant hardship during COVID-19 as more than 26,000 households have been sued by their landlords since the start of the pandemic, vastly outpacing other large American cities.⁴ Before the pandemic, more than ⅓ of Bronx residents spent more than half their income on rent, a shuddering prospect when considering the ramifications of the expiration of the statewide eviction moratorium.
In New York City and Greater New York, more case studies of housing-related COVID hardships can be found. Those who lost employment during the pandemic will find it hard to procure new housing as a result of not having proof of income, which can result in settling for less than ideal living circumstances and compromises with potentially unscrupulous landlords. For those who have managed to retain their housing despite a lack of income, thanks in part to the state and federal eviction moratoria, rental debt continues to pile up with $2.2 billion accumulated in back rent nationally – a situation exacerbated by the slow disbursement rate of federal rental assistance.⁵
Under the present circumstances, struggling tenants are looking for a reliable source of information to help them understand their rights in an eviction and find free or low-cost attorneys. In response, with the support of the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New York, Pro Bono Net developed TenantHelpNY – a site that focuses on legal resources and pro bono assistance outside of New York City where there is no right to counsel in an eviction.
On January 19, Veronica Dunlap, New York Programs Director at Pro Bono Net, shared with attendees at the Legal Services Corporation’s 2022 Innovations in Technology Conference that the site, developed in partnership with upstate legal service providers, was created, “…to be a one-stop hub for tenants facing eviction and attorneys seeking to help them.” On the TenantHelpNY.org site, renters can find information on how to participate in the New York Emergency Rental Assistance Program, find pro bono or low-cost legal service providers, and learn more about their rights and defenses as a tenant. TenantHelpNY materials are curated by legal experts and housing attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Nassau Suffolk Law Services, Legal Aid of Western New York, Legal Aid Society of Mid New York, Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Services of Hudson Valley, and Pro Bono Net.
Tre Dennis-Brown is the 2021-22 AmeriCorps VISTA Fellow at Pro Bono Net. Tre received a Bachelor’s of Arts in Government, with a concentration in Political Theory, from Wesleyan University in 2019. He has previously worked as a Real Estate Junior Paralegal at Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger. Economic equity is a long-time passion of Treshauxn’s, and he is now excited to be addressing justice gaps in legal deserts.