By Peter Feuerherd
Cynthia Contreras’ cellphone went off the weekend of Jan. 15, soon after Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature allowed the emergency Covid-relief rental eviction moratorium to expire.
That decision, made in Albany, reverberated 140 miles south at the Betances Houses in the Bronx, where Cynthia works as a tenant advocate for Catholic Charities. Estimates are that about half the residents at Betances are in rent arrears, some as high as $10,000. Many of those are now in panic mode, anxious about the future of their homes.
“I had so many calls. They are very nervous,” said Cynthia.
The concerns go back over the nearly two-year cycle of the Covid crisis.
“A lot of our residents were employed by jobs affected by the pandemic,” Cynthia said, noting how the restaurants and home health care industries took a hit, with many still struggling.
Rents at Betances can go as high as $1,500 for a one-bedroom apartment, but many residents receive Section Eight subsidies.
“There is a tidal wave of cases which will hit the housing courts.”
Cynthia is now hearing from many of the tenants. They include the single mom of three who lost her job as a secretary for a housekeeping agency after Covid hit, and then suffered a mini-stroke which prevented her from working until recently. She is still looking for work, relying on the slim SSI disability payments for two of her children.
Another client owes more than $30,000 in rental arrears, accumulated after her daughter, who helped pay her rent, had her identity stolen and her bank account emptied. That daughter serves in the U.S. military and was one of the last of the American troops to leave Afghanistan last year.
Contreras works to connect her clients to the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which provides support for renters affected by Covid-related economic setbacks. The program is funded by the federal government and administered by the states.
Catholic Charities’ agencies such as Homebase in the Bronx sometimes can provide direct assistance and will help tenants apply for what they are entitled to in state and city subsidies. But the processing of many applications has been slow, with rent arrears accumulating while tenants wait for a response.
According to Richard Espinal, Director of Housing Support Services, the problems faced by tenants at Betances are a small slice of a massive New York City issue. As the rent moratorium concludes, the clock on evictions will begin to start. In a normal year, some 150,000 New Yorkers are evicted from their apartments. This year, estimates are that number could rise to half a million. Undocumented tenants are ineligible for government subsidies, and there is particular concern about them, said Richard.
The residue of the rental crisis for the city’s poorer tenants will remain, even if the city were to suddenly emerge from the pandemic and miraculously return to a pre-pandemic world.
“There is a tidal wave of cases which will hit the housing courts. It’s going to be brutal,” said Richard.