One of the few positive side effects of the pandemic is that the sudden accumulation of furniture, toys and kitchen appliances on a sidewalk has become rare in the U.S. in recent months. There is always a catastrophe behind the scene: people who have not paid their rent are put out on the street with their belongings on behalf of a landlord.
For many, this marks the beginning of their descent into homelessness. Those who don’t have relatives with a visitor’s couch subsequently “live” in a cheap motel on the highway, on a campsite, in the back of a car or right on the street.
When tens of millions of people became unemployed overnight this spring, individual states ordered temporary eviction freezes. In late summer, the CDC made it a nationwide eviction moratorium. It justified it medically: in a pandemic, homelessness is a health risk.
In New York, one of the cities with the highest rents in the country, banners reading “Cancel the Rent” appeared as early as spring. But the state’s governor didn’t even think of heeding the call. Democrat Andrew Cuomo did decide that temporarily no one who could not pay their rent because of Covid-19 would be evicted. But for rent payments, he only ordered a stay.
New York’s landlords are efficient lobbyists
As a result, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are now sitting on rent debt that they could not repay even if they got their low-paying old jobs back. Their average rent arrears are over $5,000.
On Dec. 31, the moratorium expires. In the middle of winter and at the height of the deadliest wave of the pandemic, up to 30 million people in the U.S. will then be threatened with the streets. In New York, thousands of landlords have already used the past few months to file eviction suits. Now they are just waiting to be allowed to take action.
Landlords in New York – which include Donald Trump and his son-in-law – are an effective lobby that can apply pressure when their interests are affected. When the Albany Legislature begins discussing an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium this month, landlords immediately step forward.
This past week, it’s the turn of the associations representing “small” New York landlords. “New York’s housing market is facing disaster,” they threaten, “if we don’t have rental income, we won’t be able to pay our taxes. Then the real estate speculators will take over.”
Crucially, the 20 days before Biden’s inauguration.
One of the few other positive side effects of the pandemic is that rents in New York have dropped for the first time in a very long time. From a city where landlords call the shots, New York this year has become a “renter’s city,” where the supply is greater than the demand for housing. Because hundreds of thousands have left the city because of the pandemic, housing is empty.
When I want to take advantage of this economy to move into an apartment that costs 20 percent less rent, my landlady gives me a leg up. “You can move out,” she said, “but you have to keep paying your rent until your lease expires.” The tenant associations I sought advice from are busy with eviction suits. I’m staying. And I’m hoping that New York will still be a “tenant city” when my lease expires.
In a country with almost no landlord-tenant law, it’s not easy to win against landlords. During the pandemic, some of them sued over the CDC’s eviction moratorium. They said it was unconstitutional. In several places around the country, judges are ruling in their favor. In New York, too, there have been sporadic evictions since November because of it.
Tenants’ associations consider the 20 days between the end of the year and the new president taking office to be the most dangerous. Their hope is that Joe Biden will enact a new federal moratorium on evictions when he takes office.
by Xavier Cuesta – European Correspondent