For years, the basic tactic employed by poor tenants in Housing Court was to stall until they could come up with the cash.
But the new rent laws passed last summer have changed everything. Now tenants face eviction if they don’t pay up the lump sum they owe their landlords within five days of a judgment in their case. And when cases get bogged down in court for more than 30 days, landlords can insist that tenants put deposits for ongoing rent into court-administered escrow accounts. Again, tenants have five days to comply before facing an immediate trial and likely eviction.
The changes, part of the Albany deal that saved rent regulations, stripped judges of the power to grant long delays and drastically accelerated a process that once was measured in months.
To stem what looked like a potential flood of new evictions, the city’s Human Resources Administration stepped in. After a meeting last August with housing and welfare advocates, the agency vowed to hire 122 new caseworkers to speed up the paperwork on emergency “one-shot” loans–one-time cash injections for tenants on the verge of eviction.
But the city didn’t come through.
Technically, the loans are welfare money, but recipients are usually working people down on their luck. One-shots are designed for fundamentally solvent people who find themselves temporarily strapped because of illness, accident or unemployment. These discrete payments–as much as $2,200 in the form of an interest-free, one-year loan–are a cheap safety net. They keep the working poor from tumbling into the world of permanent welfare, public housing, subsidized rent and a homeless shelter system that can cost taxpayers $36,000 per recipient each year.
It generally takes HRA at least four to six weeks to process a one-shot application. The paper chase requires a dozen sign-offs and the coordination of three separate offices in order to produce a check. The process is bewildering: There are three different kinds of grants with exacting and contradictory eligibility criteria.
The new caseworkers, stationed in courts and regional welfare centers, were supposed to bring one-shots up to speed and make it possible for tenants to get loan checks before Housing Court’s new five-day clock ran out. At least that’s what everybody thought, until the mayor’s budget office scuttled HRA’s plans in February. The agency would get new caseworkers, budget boss Joe Lhota decreed–precisely 13 new caseworkers.
Although the impact of the five-day rule has been blunted so far by judges’ willingness to sidestep rent deposits, the city has still been caught short. Eight workers were deployed in the housing courts this winter, and some of the 33 regional centers have emergency rent personnel that can expedite loans. But many centers are hopelessly overburdened, and years of cutbacks mean that HRA’s central office–where almost all one-shots are evaluated–has only 12 supervisors to sign off on 2,000 monthly applications.
“HRA just can’t react to all those cases within one to three business days,” says Legal Aid’s Susan Bahn. “They can do that in extreme cases, with a screaming advocate, but otherwise they just don’t have the personnel.”
Sometimes even screaming isn’t enough. Lucille Sing, a social worker with a Master’s degree, was laid off from St. Vincent’s Hospital last year at age 59. Her unemployment benefits ran out in the fall, and two months behind in her rent, she went to HRA in January to ask for a $1,336.98 one-shot so she could stay in the rent-stabilized apartment she’d lived in for 25 years.
They gave her $18.65 for a week’s food and told her to get a 72-hour eviction notice to prove her desperation before applying for a one-shot–even though she already had a formal letter from her landlord explaining whatshe owed. The type of one-shot she’d applied for required her to be solvent enough to pay the loan back, but poor enough to need it. And the agency wanted to hold a check from a guarantor to prove she’d pay the loan back.
Sing has been told she was lucky. Caseworkers at HRA have been known to demand birth certificates, testimonials from former employers, and months’ worth of old grocery receipts, says Carl Peterson, Queens coordinator for the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court.
Since requesting her loan, Sing has had six appointments with HRA (one took all day), a home visit from a caseworker and three court dates. “This is infuriating, and very frightening, too,” Sing says. “This is living at the end of a gun, and at my age, where am I going to go?”
Sing finally called her congressman, who wrote the deputy commissioner of HRA. In early March, more than six weeks after her initial visit, Sing’s check was cut–a $2,200 loan for what had become four months’ back rent.
Recognizing that such delays are commonplace, judges used to postpone proceedings and hold off evictions in about half of all Housing Court cases. That gave tenants time to produce the money or, in cases where the landlord was in the wrong, rent receipts and building inspection records.
Under the new rent deposit law, however, Sing’s judge wasn’t allowed to postpone her case. Luckily, she had a sympathetic landlord and a nonprofit willing to back her up her credit. With that, she was able to strike a deal. She convinced her landlord to wait while she went for the one-shot. Both finally got what they wanted.
Since HRA has a standing policy of refusing to answer any questions from City Limits, hard figures are unavailable, but advocates estimate that between 75 percent and 95 percent of all one-shot applications are denied the first time, and court affidavits show that little more than half of all tenants eventually get their loan.
Many landlords aren’t as accommodating as Sing’s. And they know they could wait weeks or even months only to find out that their tenants’ one-shots were denied. Landlord attorney Harvey Luftig says he’d rather go to trial than wait for a tenant to get a one-shot. “I don’t have the sense that tenants going for one-shots are successful,” says Luftig, who practices in Brooklyn. “My job is to assist my clients in collecting rent. I don’t have a great deal of confidence that [one-shots] help tenants get it.”
Luftig points out that one-shots used to be more generous and easier to acquire. The city didn’t bother to collect on the loans, so future ability to pay wasn’t a big issue. But over the last few years, one-shot criteria has been tightened, the loans were kept to a few months’ rent, and the city started demanding repayment. All of this has served to restrict tenant eligibility.
Some tenants have landlords who will wait rather than demand rent deposits. But landlords anxious to rid their buildings of low-rent units have no reason not to exercise the new provisions, and their tenants can’t depend on HRA to bail them out in time.
Advocates fear that as landlords become familiar with the new rules, the number of tenants who need quick one-shots will climb and HRA won’t be able to respond. “If that does come about, then we know that there’s going to be all kinds of problems, which is why HRA was going to bring [new] people in,” says City-Wide’s Peterson. “Right now, most people are just holding their breath.”