Opinion: New York’s answer to the eviction crisis triggered by COVID-19 needs a successor

Opinion: New York’s answer to the eviction crisis triggered by COVID-19 needs a successor

It’s been a year since the nationwide eviction moratorium ended in January 2022, and although the ongoing economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still with us, renters will lose another essential protection.

New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program is set to close its application process on January 20, 2023. This program has been a much-needed lifeline for renters, helping with the rental debt of over 22,000 renters across New York York. The program serves as an eviction protection, as applicants are protected by a stay that halts tenant eviction proceedings until the State Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability makes a decision on their application. An active stance not only prevents evictions, but postpones court dates, easing the strain on judicial resources. The closure of the program comes after months of extensions in hopes of renewing funding. With housing advocates overwhelmed by the scale and number of eviction cases going to court and New York City’s homeless shelters under historic strain, the sunset of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program will create a gap in the protection of tenants that governments should be eager to fill.

The pandemic disrupted business as usual in every aspect of public and private life, prompting activists and politicians to come up with bold proposals to match the scale of the crises at hand. The government responded to public pressure by expanding unemployment insurance and other benefits, sending out stimulus checks, and freezing payments on mortgages and student debt. Distressed tenants pushed for – and won – extraordinary interventions including a moratorium on evictions and large-scale funding to pay rent arrears.

While these measures were controversial, it is essential that New York housing policymakers and advocates remember that they worked and prevented even greater numbers of New Yorkers from becoming homeless or housing insecure. Recognizing the value of safe and stable housing in reducing exposure to disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted a nationwide ban on evictions in 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19. Early research has supported their actions, with multiple studies showing increased rates of COVID-19 exposure and death in states where deportation moratoriums were lifted. Moreover, even before the pandemic, studies of the impacts of deportation have found a strong link between deportation and poor health outcomes, including substance abuse, more frequent need for emergency care, and higher mortality.

New York provided even stronger protections in the Tenant Safe Harbor Act of 2020, which delayed or prevented evictions for millions of renters who suffered coronavirus-related hardship. The state extended these protections many times while fighting both the deadly virus and the crises that spread in its wake, with the battle to control the pandemic raging alongside struggles for racial, social, and economic justice. Each potential expiration of the protections brought political conflict over renewal, but each successful extension increased the safety and security of New Yorkers who would otherwise face the dire conditions associated with evictions and debt judgments.

At Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, we served thousands of clients who faced financial hardship during the early months of the pandemic. These obstacles caused chain reactions that leave many of our customers vulnerable to this day. The loss of income coupled with increased childcare and medical expenses caused renters to drain their savings, taking away not only the means to pay rent, but also their ability to afford moving costs. While hundreds of these customers received a lifeline in the form of Emergency Rental Assistance Program assistance, many others remain on a thin edge of stability. Now, recent increases in the cost of living are pushing many families deeper into debt, with families forced to choose between increasingly expensive groceries and paying rent or other bills.

While many of the emergency protections created to address COVID-19 have expired, the human impact of the pandemic remains an urgent crisis. This crisis, which has already overlapped with other crises and systemic inequalities that preceded COVID-19, is now expected to be amplified by further economic shocks. Instead of cutting costs and closing defenses, elected officials should push for a renewed commitment to the safety and stability of New Yorkers.

The Emergency Rental Assistance program kept renters in their homes, helped landlords make their mortgage payments, and saved the scarce resources of our court system. It worked before, and it can work again. Whether New York expands the current program or creates another system that protects and helps tenants, closing the program’s application signals the opening of new opportunities for bold action. With courage and conviction, we can get through this crisis and the next, together.

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