As New York City enters a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented array of economic devastation trails in its wake. In the West Bronx, looming damage can be seen in the large number of eviction filings, not executed and on hold thanks to a state-issued moratorium.
Even as lawmakers work to extend the moratorium, eviction filings persist. And they’re most prevalent within the Bronx’s 14th City Council District, according to a March report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development [ANHD]. The housing think tank found 40,000 eviction proceedings initiated in New York since March 2020, with the bulk concentrated in the Bronx.
The issue figures prominently in the race for the open City Council’s 14th District seat, and the six candidates running to replace Fernando Cabrera, who is term-limited out and now running for Bronx Borough President, have proposed immediate- and long-term fixes for the area’s housing crisis. The proposals include creating more community land trusts, expanding the right to a free housing attorney, making services easily available, and building more affordable housing.
“If you are economically insecure, if you’re facing so much economic inequality like we do in my neighborhood, then you’re always going to be pushed around, you’re always going to be subject to this,” Pierina Sanchez, a candidate in the race, said. “I have inequality in the crosshairs.”
Sanchez is among six candidates set to appear on the ballot for the Democratic primary, which also includes Haile Rivera, Yudelka Tapia, Adolfo Abreu, Pierina Sanchez, Socrates Solano, and Fernando Aquino. Solano and Aquino did not respond to a request for an interview.
The winner of the June 22nd Democratic primary, who likely be the winner of the November election given the district’s disproportionate number of Democrats, will have to contend with staving off a massive exodus in the working-class district, a problem that existed prior to the pandemic but has become worse.
According to the ANHD report, the ZIP codes of 10452, 10458, and 10468—all within the 14th Council District—rank among the top 10 neighborhoods with the highest number of eviction filings, with up to 50 evictions per every 1,000 units hit with an eviction lawsuit. The NYU Furman Center noted in 2018 that an average 39% of renter households in those three ZIP codes were deemed rent burdened, meaning 50% or more of their take-home pay went to rent.
“I think if you looked at a map of eviction filings and evictions that have been carried out before the pandemic it would look very similar in terms of that area of the Bronx being really targeted [by landlords],” Lucy Block, a policy analyst with ANHD, told Gothamist/WNYC.
While the eviction moratorium is expected to be extended to August 31st in a vote on Monday, it doesn’t erase months of back-rent tenants must pay once it’s lifted. Block attributed the majority of the open eviction filings to job losses during the pandemic. Even with a federal stimulus, it did not help renters avoid an eviction.
For Sanchez, a candidate who has handled housing complaints as a senior advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the immediate fix is the state’s new $3 billion rent-relief program. The plan, mostly funded by the federal stimulus and not implemented yet, would provide landlords with direct rental-assistance payments in exchange for waiving late fees for delinquent tenants, freezing rent for at least a year, and agreeing to a one-year eviction freeze for tenants with an expired lease.
“We have to make sure that not a single eviction happens until that program is completely up and running by the state and that we are protecting people’s ability to stay in their homes,” Sanchez said, adding that city marshals should disregard eviction warrants in the meantime
Sanchez also pointed to long-term proposals such as creating more homeownership opportunities funded through the Housing Development Fund Corporation, or expanding available land for affordable housing by plating over the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Rival candidate Adolfo Abreu also supports ways to increase home ownership. A tenant organizer who worked for then-Council Member Ritchie Torres and the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, Abreu said he supported the creation of more community land trusts [CLT]. The non-profit trusts take ownership of land, build homes on top of it, and lease them to New Yorkers at substantially cheaper prices. Abreu cited Manhattan’s Cooper Square in the East Village as a successful model.
Community land trusts “can shift the conversation of how we do development, and actually guarantee that we have good-paying jobs and affordability because I think people in our community want nice things too, but we don’t want to be displaced,” Abreu said.
For fixes they can directly implement, candidates who spoke with Gothamist/WNYC agreed that expanding “Right to Counsel” can help struggling New York City residents stay in their homes. The program, backed by Cabrera, was rolled out as a pilot program in 2017 following a massive rezoning of Jerome Avenue, and guarantees low-income New Yorkers with a court-appointed attorney in housing court.
But the program is restricted to low-income earners making less than $25,520 for a single adult or $52,400 for a family of four a year, leaving out New Yorkers making just above those figures. That’s what frustrates candidate Yudelka Tapia, a fixture in the district who once served as a school PTA president before becoming a district leader for the 86th Assembly District.
Tapia, who notes her office has helped rent-burdened residents learn about their housing rights, said, if elected, she’d honor the Right to Counsel Coalition’s key demand for universal court-appointed attorneys, by providing funding to lift the income restriction and expand the program to all struggling renters.
“Not even if you make $75,000 a year can you pay for a lawyer to go to court. It definitely has to be expanded,” Tapia said. “But this is something that we’ve been crying for. It was expanded a little bit, but it hasn’t been expanded enough. We need to put more money into Right to Counsel.”
That’s a proposal Haile Rivera, another candidate for the Council seat who attended the visioning sessions for the Jerome Avenue rezoning, agrees with. Rivera’s experience in housing stems from his work with HELP-USA, a social-services group that prevents people from becoming homeless. Rivera said more could be done to spread awareness of legal help for tenants and make it available in multiple languages.
“We need to get government into the streets, right? And when I say that, I don’t mean in the form of protesting, but I mean in the form of getting government from our offices, to get folks out there,” Rivera said. “Every department has a community affairs, community relations or whatnot, public affairs. But it seems like […] that’s behind [a] desk downtown. Not everybody can hop on the train, not everybody has a MetroCard.”
Rivera told Gothamist that if elected he would ensure the city maintains a dominant presence within the district’s neighborhoods to help spread information about housing rights. It’s only a matter of time, Rivera noted, until landlords will want to collect their money.
“We do it with other programs and activities, but this is not an activity. We’re talking about a crisis […] that will come and it’s happening,” Rivera said. “The landlords are anxiously awaiting for the time that they can take everybody to court.”