Daily News Op-Ed: To Fix Housing Court, Keep it Closed: A Government-Funded Rental Assistance Program Would Better Help Tenant and Landlord Alike

Originally published in Daily News

No Housing Court, no evictions. (Courtesy, Make the Road New York)

On June 22, 2020, the Daily News published an opinion piece by Sophie House, a fellow at the Furman Center, and Maia Cole, a student at NYU Law School, that makes the case for the interrelated goals of keeping the Housing Courts closed for eviction cases and providing financial assistance to cover rent that tenants are unable to pay because of the COVID-19 shutdown; they call the Emergency Rent Relief Act, sponsored by Senator Kavanagh and recently enacted, a "good start." The full text of the piece is below; the original version is available via the link above.

To Fix Housing Court, Keep It Closed: A Government-Funded Rental Assistance Program Would Better Help Tenant and Landlord Alike
By Sophie House and Maia Cole 
June 22, 2020

Over the past week, advocates and judges have been preparing for the reopening of New York City’s Housing Court. Since March, executive orders and administrative directives have kept the courts closed to almost all non-emergency cases. Much remains to be decided, but one thing is clear: New York City and state face the real risk of a surge in eviction filings. Statewide eviction protections were largely lifted on June 20 and phased out altogether by Aug. 20, and federal enhancements to unemployment are set to expire on July 31. If protections and benefits are not extended, hundreds of thousands of tenants will face unsustainable rent burdens. Many landlords, losing income and without viable alternatives, will turn to the courts.

We have studied Housing Court closely, speaking with attorneys, tenants, housing providers, advocates and city officials. Our research has led us to a simple conclusion about how to reopen Housing Court: Don’t.

More precisely, don’t reopen housing courts to a flood of new nonpayment eviction cases. The citywide rent shortfall is a problem housing courts can’t solve. Instead, state and federal legislators must act quickly to keep as many cases as possible from reaching Housing Court in the first place. As it stands, courts — faced with a backlog of cases and thousands more coming — are doing what they can by preparing to calendar cases, albeit slowly. This leaves tenants with eviction lings hanging over their heads for months, at the end of which they could lose their homes. Meanwhile, landlords continue to lose income they need for maintenance, repairs, and mortgage and property-tax payments, while shouldering legal fees.

Instead, the federal government should fund, and the state should develop, a rental assistance program administered outside the court system to help tenants facing income losses pay arrears. Tenants should have access to assistance before receiving a rent demand or court papers.

Alternatively, make landlords apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants before they can turn to the courts for help. The Emergency Rent Relief Act of 2020, which uses federal Community Development Block Grant funds, is a good start, but more will be needed. The projected rent shortfall in New York City after July — around $267 million each month — is more than a city or state government in crisis can cover, making federal funding critical. Without emergency rental assistance, the city will ultimately have to contend with large-scale eviction, a deteriorating low-cost housing stock, missed tax payments and perhaps another foreclosure crisis.

Many tenants facing eviction will not have a place to go if they lose their homes. Some will end up in the shelter system, where congregate living increases the likelihood of COVID transmission. Previous research shows that evictions significantly increased emergency room visits, even before the pandemic. On top of it all, a surge in eviction filings will disproportionately harm black and Latino tenants and the neighborhoods where many of them live.

Housing courts are designed for exactly the kinds of cases they are hearing now, no “reopening” required: emergencies arising out of genuine legal disputes, such as urgent repairs, illegal lockouts or serious misconduct. Preventing a surge of new nonpayment eviction lings would allow the court to focus on these matters, which can be heard virtually during the pandemic. Remote hearings do present challenges, including equipping all litigants with legal representation, translation and adequate technology. Such challenges are easier to overcome, however, for a small number of emergency cases than for the hundreds of thousands of nonpayment evictions.

Without bold action, black and brown communities may be devastated not just by COVID-19, but by the preventable housing and homelessness crisis on the horizon.