WINDSOR TERRACE — New Yorkers who can’t pay rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic have a few government-enacted protections to avoid evictions, but that doesn’t stop landlords from taking legal steps to remove tenants.
Only a judge can order evictions, which are banned until Dec. 31 through a federal order approved earlier this month. A separate ban issued by the New York courts expires Thursday, Oct. 1.
However, these bans don’t prevent a landlord from filing eviction lawsuits in the New York City Housing Court. Doing so gets their cases on the record. But landlords will be in for a long wait. The housing court has 14,000 backlogged cases filed before the pandemic lockdowns began in mid-March.
“I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, and maybe more,” said Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer from Brooklyn whose Manhattan law firm specializes in representing tenants. “We get 30-40 calls a day from people in various kinds of trouble — half of them are in economic hardships, or their health was impacted by COVID-19.”
The federal ban, ordered by President Donald Trump, is managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 by allowing people to stay in their homes, instead of crowded homeless shelters.
The bans, however, don’t cancel rent; they only delay paying it without fear of being evicted. Back-rent will be due when the federal ban expires at the end of the year.
Right now, it’s unknown if the ban would get extended past Dec. 31. Therefore, tenants behind on rent have three months to figure out their housing dilemmas. Those choosing a legal route are urged by lawyers not to represent themselves in court. That may sound self-serving, but the Housing Court requires lawyers for all litigants who get an in-person hearing.
The cases currently being heard are among the 14,000 backlogged in the courts filed before March 17 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a statewide pause that closed nonessential businesses and most government offices and courts. Offices began reopening in stages a few weeks ago.
The governor has also addressed the evictions of business owners who rent commercial spaces. On Monday, Sept. 21, he signed an executive order shielding them from evictions and late rent fees through Oct. 20.
“The pandemic remains far from over,” Cuomo said, “and we need to continue protecting the business owners supporting their families amid restrictions necessary to protect the public health.”
Defendants in these pre-pandemic cases can’t prevail using the eviction moratoriums because their problems occurred before Cuomo’s pause, Himmelstein said. At least that’s the consensus among lawyers now.
A spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System agreed.
“It remains to be determined whether any pre-pandemic cases would be covered under the new CDC rules,” said spokesman Lucian Chalfen. “However, judges are reviewing the applicability of all relevant authorities, including the CDC rules, before ordering an eviction in any case, including pre-pandemic cases.”
Himmelstein said these cases get heard via video conferencing, some in-person court appearances, “or a combination of both.” He added that the housing court had hearings in small courtrooms, but now the cases have moved to larger venues where people can spread out for social distancing.
In a video update on how New York courts are gradually reopening, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said that “in-person bench trials are being conducted every week in our New York City Housing Court for pre-pandemic cases where both sides are represented by counsel.”
But, she added, “We recognize that it will be a long time, if ever before we can return to even a semblance of the in-person density and activity that took place in our courthouses before the pandemic.”
“And so,” the judge said, “we are working constantly to expand our virtual capacity and improve our virtual operations — now and for the future.”
Himmelstein said tenants could use another government-ordered provision in eviction cases filed against them. He described an executive order from Cuomo that suspended the law requiring tenants to respond to an eviction warrant within 10 days.
Now, there is no deadline to respond, which puts a case on indefinite hold.
“I’ve recently had three clients served with court papers, and they have yet to respond,” Himmelstein said. “I’m counseling clients not to respond. I mean, why should we if we don’t have to?”
New York City government offers help to people facing evictions. For information, go to www1.nyc.gov/content/tenantresourceportal/pages/.
Also, Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens have Homelessness Prevention services. See www.ccbq.org/get-help/homelessness-prevention for more information.