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Rising Eviction Cases Converge with Termination of Pandemic Rental Aid in NY

Photo courtesy of Urban Institute

The long-dreaded eviction crisis has now been fully set in motion around the nation. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling that President Biden’s eviction moratorium extension was unconstitutional, many tenants and advocates braced themselves for a sudden rush of evictions. While this initially did not take place, the current state of evictions points to a very somber realization of this prediction. Across the country, and most significantly in areas that distributed federal rental assistance at a snail’s pace, eviction filings have been on the upswing. 

According to a statement given to the New York Times by Lee Camp, an attorney who represents tenants facing eviction, eviction filings are not the only important measure. According to him, “for months we all used these terms like eviction ‘tsunami’ and ‘falling off the cliff.’ But those simple terms missed the complexity of the eviction process and the lack of reliable statistics to track it. It was not going to happen overnight. Certainly it would take weeks and months to play out.” 

Lack of reliable statistics 

The aforementioned lack of reliable statistics is perhaps the driving force behind the current crisis at hand. According to housing advocates and experts nationwide, there is seemingly no real way to know the true extent of the crisis based on current, available numbers; this includes numbers on informal evictions as well as court-ordered evictions. Because there is neither a national eviction database, nor a uniform record-keeping system across states, we are left with unreliable numbers compounded by differing legislation. According to New America’s data, one-third of all U.S. counties have no available court eviction data at all.

This brings us to the numbers we do have. 

Eviction Filings Data

According to the Eviction Lab, Princeton University’s nationwide database of evictions, “while the number of eviction filings remained at nearly half of pre-pandemic averages during the first two weeks of October, in the 31 cities and six states it tracks, the filings are also increasing.” Within the first 2 weeks of September, for example, eviction filings shot up by 10% from their rates at the same time in August. In October, that number went up by 14%. In the words of Eviction Lab researcher, Peter Hepburn, these trends bear particularly significant repercussions “in places that don’t have protections, [in which] these numbers are increasing pretty quickly. And we don’t know where the ceiling is.” 

But wasn’t there rental assistance to mitigate these evictions? 

Federal Rental Assistance

There was technically a rental relief program created during the pandemic to preemptively get ahead of such an eviction crisis. About a year ago, the Biden administration allocated $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance to be used by tenants in need; according to government data, somewhere around $2 million payments have been made using these funds. An important part of this assistance, however, was that jurisdictions at the state and local levels were to distribute the funds – or use them to provide alternatives – to tenants. This is where it all went wrong. 

Distribution of rental assistance was overwhelmingly rolled out too slowly across the nation. A baseline issue was the application process, which proved as much difficult for tenants as for landlords. According to Tara Raghuveer, the director of advocacy organization KC Tenants, “rental assistance was not designed for tenants; rental assistance was designed to stabilize an industry. [However], without increased protections for renters and interventions in the exploding rental market, tenants will continue to be displaced through the courts or otherwise.” And the difficulty in applying for assistance is symbolic of the lack of protections that were established for tenants. 

At a deeper level, however, the crisis has truly unfolded because of a lack of timely distribution of funds. Nowhere better exemplifies this than New York. 

Lagging Distribution

New York, the state with the most renters in the country, announced that it was closing applications for its pandemic rent relief. How could this happen? Because not only was the state met with outstanding application numbers, but also it was unable to properly process said applications and distribute funds to those who had already been approved. 

When its $2.4 billion rental assistance program was first introduced, New York reportedly received almost 280,000 applications; this massive application surge was supplemented by around 100,000 additional applications that remain pending to this day. In stark contrast to what is needed, only $1 billion has been distributed to renters up to date; according to recent data, not a single payment was issued in August by New York. 

Unfortunately, this situation has been replicating itself around the country as well. While New York renters felt the economic crisis perhaps more acutely than renters in other states, this trend of under-distributing to renters unfortunately remains quite constant throughout the U.S. 

Is There a Silver Lining? 

While the rental assistance program perhaps may not be salvageable, there have been actions taken that could mitigate some aspects of the crisis moving forward. For example, many housing groups have called on the United States Treasury Department to redirect unused assistance from smaller states that simply did not need as much money as they were allocated. In another example, New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently announced that she put in a formal request for almost $1 billion in additional funding for rent relief from the federal government. According to her, this was necessary because “while New York accelerated getting rent relief out the door and moved from the back of the pack to the front amongst other states, there are still many individuals in need of assistance.” 

In any case, the eviction crisis is currently happening, much to our dismay. In the words of Legal Aid Society staff attorney, Ellen Davidson, “it would be a disaster if we don’t get more funds, when you look at how many tenants before Covid were struggling to pay rent, and then you put on top of it the extreme economic crisis that came from having to shut down the state in order to save lives.”

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