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Housing crisis could worsen without rent and mortgage relief

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. 

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Sam Bojarski

Sam Bojarski

Sam Bojarski has been covering Haiti and its diaspora for The Haitian Times since 2018. He is currently covering New York's Haitian community as a Report for America corps member.
Sam Bojarski
Jun. 12, 2020