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By Sam Bojarski

Tenants and homeowners could face an uncertain future in the coming weeks, as a new eviction moratorium takes effect and housing courts prepare to reopen. 

Elsie Saint-Louis, chief executive officer of Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP), which provides social services for residents of Brooklyn and Queens, said that outside of job loss, housing is one of the major crises brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But many small landlords are equally as vulnerable as tenants. 

“It would be unconscionable of me to advocate for the tenant only and not even say something, that we need to be really looking at how we are going to create some kind of mortgage relief for homeowners as well,” she said. 

Homeowners, many of whom rent out portions of their homes and serve as landlords, run the risk of not meeting their mortgage payments during the pandemic. On the tenant side, the undocumented and those who lost jobs in the service industry are most at risk for not being able to pay their rent, according to Saint-Louis. While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s extended eviction moratorium takes effect June 20 and lasts for two months, it does not apply to all tenants. 

An apartment building at the corner of Rogers and Newkirk avenues. Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

Central Brooklyn, the heartbeat of New York’s Haitian community, already had a high share of rent-burdened tenants before the pandemic. In Brooklyn Community District 17, more than half of all households are considered rent-burdened. According to New York’s Department of City Planning, this district includes the neighborhoods of East Flatbush, Farragut, Flatbush, Remsen Village, Rugby and Erasmus. 

Citing information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, Oksana Mironova, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society of New York, told the Haitian Times that in the last week of May 2020, 29 percent of tenants statewide showed little to no confidence in being able to make their June rent payment. The share was higher for black tenants, at 41 percent. 

The gentrification of Flatbush has already led to displacement, as property values rise and more people are unable to afford rent. Lutchi Gayot, a Haitian-American, was born and raised in the neighborhood and has noticed the impact of gentrification on senior citizens, in particular.

“I have never seen so many homeless elderly of Haitian descent in my life, I’ve never seen it before,” said Gayot, who is running to represent New York’s 9th Congressional District in this month’s Democratic primary. Gayot is advocating for the creation of a massive federal housing bond that would provide money for local homeowners to develop their properties into affordable housing. 

For those unable to make rent, the all-encompassing eviction moratorium that started in March ends on June 20. While Gov. Cuomo has extended the eviction ban from June 20 to Aug. 20, it only applies to those eligible for unemployment insurance or otherwise facing a financial hardship. But the parameters around what defines a financial hardship are unclear. 

“I don’t think it’s clearly transmitted from what they did before to what happens now,” Saint-Louis said, adding that access to information has been a challenge during the pandemic, particularly for immigrants. 

Furthermore, she said the pandemic has forced some to work reduced hours, meaning less money to pay rent. 

“You cannot give me (a) general announcement, general guidelines and then somewhere along the line tell me, ‘oh but that really didn’t apply to you,’” Saint-Louis also said. 

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit of the Legal Aid Society, addressed the eviction moratorium and what it means for New York City tenants during a virtual tenant rights information session on June 10. 

While eviction proceedings are suspended for the time being, that will likely change after June 20, when New York City’s housing courts reopen. 

“The courts are restarting for cases that were pending as of the time of the (moratorium), so landlords are starting to file motions against tenants, and those motions are going to be served by mail,” said Goldiner, who added that tenants who get served with papers should call the city’s 311 hotline to inquire about legal assistance. 

Brian Cook, who works for the city as an assistant comptroller for economic development, said during the June 10 information session that what constitutes “financial hardship” has not yet been tested legally. 

“After the 20th, it is only a moratorium for people who can prove hardship. So we will probably see the housing courts start to reopen, but what that looks like will probably depend on the region and the judges in charge,” he said. 

Saint Louis said she is “extremely concerned” about the number of people in the Haitian community who will be impacted once the courts open up. 

“The message about the rent relief was too broad from the start, and did not spell out the criteria. It is both unfair and unfortunate. This city is not prepared for additional homeless people. I call on the people with the authority to wipe the slate clean for both homeowners and renters alike (and) to do the right thing,” Saint-Louis told the Haitian Times in an email. 

Goldiner estimated that after June 20, at least 50,000 eviction cases could be heard in housing court almost immediately, although it is unclear if the courts will be able to handle this volume. 

Several categories of tenants, including the undocumented and those who are employed informally, might be ineligible for unemployment and have trouble demonstrating hardship. 

In response to a question from the Haitian Times, Goldiner said these workers could obtain a letter from an employer or coworker. Gathering bank statements and pay stubs could also help tenants make their case. 

As a member of the Haitian Business Coalition, which has helped business owners apply for assistance during the pandemic, Wesley Jean-Simon knows that many employees of small, family-owned businesses are paid under the table. 

“Most of the time they have people that’s working for them that have no papers. So not only are people not getting a paycheck because they’re being laid off, they’re not eligible for nothing from the government, unemployment benefits due to COVID-19, because these people don’t have any papers. So the community is really being affected by that,” said Jean-Simon, who is also co-owner of Zanmi Restaurant, on Nostrand Avenue. 

Mortgage relief for homeowners

Tenants aren’t the only vulnerable group among New York’s Haitian community. Saint-Louis noted that many landlords are underemployed and have been living beyond their means. 

“Unless there’s going to be some robust financial relief for homeowners, these people as well are going to hurt,” Saint Louis said. “I know some very vulnerable people who have homes. And then they live in an apartment, and they rent the rest of the house. And that’s what allows them to pay their mortgage,” she added. 

A row of homes in Brooklyn’s Little Haiti district. Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

In response to a question posed by the Haitian Times, Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society said that some landlords have been able to get mortgage forbearance from their banks, to cover the past three months of lost income. 

Depending on the bank, this means the homeowner would either have to pay the money owed over time or at the end of the mortgage term. 

“We urge small landlords to be looking for that mortgage forbearance, and we also urge those landlords to pass along any forbearance they get to their tenants who are also suffering,” said Goldiner, who added that Legal Aid Society and the 311 hotline offer resources to prevent foreclosure. 

Cook, from the city comptroller’s office, noted that the governor’s moratorium on mortgage forbearance only applies to “an incredibly small set” of mortgages that are regulated solely by the state. 

But he said most banks have been working on some sort of mortgage forbearance program, to make sure their portfolios stay intact.

“This is one of the reasons why we recommend tenants reach out to their landlord if they’re having a hardship and can’t pay, because the landlords themselves may be trying to prove this to a bank also,” Cook added. 

Despite the stay on mortgage payments ‒ and, for the time being, rent as well ‒ many homeowners and tenants will end up owing money once the moratorium is lifted. With unemployment projected to remain high for the foreseeable future, this could leave both tenants and homeowners in a bind. 

“There should be rent and mortgage relief for everybody for three months or whatever the amount of time, you should include everybody,” Saint-Louis said. 

Thus far, HAUP has been advising tenants to pay rent if they have the means. Broad rent relief legislation at the federal and state levels has stalled so far. 

The latest stimulus bill passed by the House of Representatives includes $100 billion in assistance to low-income renters, but the bill has not passed the U.S. Senate. A state bill to enact an interim rent relief program has not been signed by Gov. Cuomo. 

Mironova, of the Community Service Society, said the eviction moratorium does not go far enough. 

“The state legislature passed a rent relief bill last month, but it is very limited. There needs to be a more sweeping short term solution, and systemic shift in how we approach housing long term,” she told the Haitian Times, in an email. 

“It’s definitely going to be a major crisis, because the information is so blurred,” Saint-Louis said. “So we anxiously await some guidance and some clear directives on what’s going to happen for those landlords and for the tenants.” 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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