Within a warren of gray cubicles housing an outpost of the Citizens Advice Bureau, Enercida Matteo sits stiffly, holding in her lap an eviction notice torn from the door of her apartment as marshals stacked her belongings in the street. That was Thursday. Now she watches the faces of the people speaking English around her, looking for clues. (She speaks only Spanish.) Or she presses a hand to her face and cries in silence. “I’m scared,” she says, “I don’t want to go to a shelter.”
Matteo is one of the first clients at the eviction prevention unit at a Bronx job center this Monday morning, and at first glance, her case makes no sense. Even with public assistance and a job at a cosmetics factory, Matteo cannot afford her full rent. As a welfare recipient on the verge of eviction, she is entitled to a rent subsidy known as Jiggetts. Named after the lead plaintiff in a suit charging that New York’s welfare rent allowance of $286 a month for a family of three is impossibly low, the subsidy, first ordered by a state court in 1993, pays up to $650 for a household of that size. Citizens Advice Bureau receives $1.3 million a year from the city to file Jiggetts applications in the Bronx.
When Matteo first came here in December, she’d already signed a stipulation in court promising to pay $4,000 in back rent by January 3. CAB filed her Jiggetts application. The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance promised to send a check and begin her ongoing subsidy by that date.
But the process went awry. The check didn’t reach her landlord in time. When it failed to arrive, Matteo should have gone to court to stay the eviction. (While a 1998 law bars judges from granting tenants more time to pay rent once they’ve agreed in court to pay by a certain date, late checks from the state are cause for an exception.) But, like 90 percent of tenants in the Bronx, Matteo had no lawyer. She didn’t know about the loophole.
She got evicted. Now she and CAB have 10 days to get the state to come through with $6,000 for back rent, legal fees and “moving fees” incurred when the marshals dumped her furniture at the curb. In the end, the state paid it—lining the landlord’s pocket with $2,000 that could easily have been saved.
Few cases end well like Matteo’s, but she is like many in the ever-growing ranks of poor people getting evicted—grasping at an inefficient and inadequate rent subsidy, a flimsy protection against homelessness. Only a few years ago, getting Jiggetts was simple. But a major 1998 restructuring of Housing Court collided with an overhaul of welfare, and for tenants on public assistance, this has meant trouble. Housing Court cases that once dragged on for months now get resolved in weeks, giving tenants little time to scrape together relief. At the same time, as welfare rolls have dropped by half, Jiggetts participation has fallen, too. In 1998, 26,000 tenants had their rent subsidized by Jiggetts. In 2000, just 16,000 did.
The impact is obvious. In the Bronx, where the proportion of the population on public assistance is the highest in the city, the number of evictions has shot up, from 5,575 in 1995 to 8,119 in 2000. Brooklyn, too, saw a dramatic rise—from 5,350 in 1995 to 7,122 in 2000. (In the rest of the city, rates have either remained stable or declined.)
Many welfare recipients can no longer count on Jiggetts’ protection. Stephanie Hall-Wright and her 3-year-old daughter, Zariya, who arrive at CAB’s office wearing matching Nikes, are one family who may lose their home to this disjointed cataclysm of reforms. Wright, who is 20 and on public assistance, owes about $1,800 in rent. She seems baffled by her landlord’s intention to evict her.
“My landlord knew the situation was rough. I was not working at the time and no one could help,” she says, sounding angry and then frantic. “I got a daughter. We can’t be out on the street. I need to regroup, think of something else to do. This is stressful.”
But Wright’s case, like many, will not be easy to resolve. She was sanctioned last summer for not complying with a job training program. Her welfare rent allowance—usually $250 a month, far short of the $525 she pays her landlord—was reduced to $93 a month. Even once she gets Jiggetts, the subsidy will not cover back rent that welfare cut off; Wright will have to repay that portion herself.
To get Jiggetts at all, she will have to straighten out her welfare case, which she does not want to do. “They want you to work in a park for 75 cents an hour,” Wright says. “I don’t have to do this. I’m only 20. I can find a job.”
Of course, if her landlord doesn’t want to wait, that choice may not be hers to make.
Only a few years ago, Jiggetts represented a sure shot for landlords. Most were eager to cooperate with tenants to get it. “I’d say that 85 percent of the cases I deal with end in Jiggetts,” landlord attorney Steven Goldstein told City Limits in 1998. “The point here is not to evict tenants. It is to get our money and keep poor people in their apartments. Jiggetts does that.” With the subsidy, landlords receive up to $7,000 compensation for back rent and the assurance that most of the rent will continue to be paid on time.
But during the late 1990s, owners in poor neighborhoods started demanding and getting rent that exceeded what Jiggetts could pay. The average rent for a two-bedroom in New York City climbed past $834, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The 1997 state law overhauling rent stabilization only gave owners more reasons to prefer eviction. That law allows landlords to increase rents on regulated apartments by 20 percent or more when they become vacant. Landlords could find desperate tenants who were willing to pay high prices by living in large groups. Other subsidies, such as Section 8, are also more generous than Jiggetts.
Landlords can not only make more money by kicking a tenant out, but recent Housing Court reforms also make it easier for them to get tenants evicted. Previously, a judge heard a case while a tenant and landlord tried to reach a deal. If they couldn’t compromise, that same judge ran the trial. Now, because of the restructuring, which was pushed by state Chief Judge Judith Kaye, the court has been split into two parts.
One judge oversees a “resolution” part, where both parties work toward a stipulation. That states how much money a tenant will pay, and by what date. Tenants might want to refuse a stipulation, because they know they can’t get the money together in the two weeks or a month a landlord demands. Judges can pressure a landlord to be more flexible about the deadline, but there is nothing they can do besides send the case to trial—under a different judge.
But few tenants want to go to trial, where a judge’s decision is the final word. If a judge decides to evict, tenants can be out of their homes in as little as five days. Getting a trial date used to take up to six weeks; now it can happen in just hours. Unprepared tenants often show up at trial with no evidence to support their case.
Eviction also used to stretch out over three to six weeks, but now the process takes only days. To avoid going to trial, tenants are likely to sign stipulations whose terms they know they cannot meet, says Jodi Harawitz, director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing. They hope that they can buy more time that way. Usually, they can’t. While requests for an extension rose to about 190,000 in 2001 from 130,000 in 1995, the 1998 law drastically limits judges’ power to grant tenants more time once they sign a stipulation.
For landlords, the new regime is a good thing: It means tenants have to get the money faster, or get out. Meryl Wenig, a Brooklyn lawyer who often represents landlords, says the law only makes sense. “If you’ve agreed to pay by a certain day, you shouldn’t get several bites of the apple,” Wenig says. “If you couldn’t make it, don’t sign it. You could have done a trial.”
Judge Fern Fisher-Brandveen, a Housing Court administrator, believes the two-part system has helped. “There are benefits on both sides to making sure something is not dragged out,” she says. Still, she admits that the law prohibiting judges from staying evictions may not be an improvement: “In some cases the judge’s hands are tied, and maybe the law has made it more difficult to extend the time in some cases where time might be a good thing.”
It’s not impossible to rush a Jiggetts application; advocates now have to do it all the time. It’s also possible to get an eviction delayed in some cases. Legal Aid and Legal Services lawyers know the loopholes. But their staffs have shrunk by more than half in some boroughs over the last decade, and very few tenants are represented.
Says Ed Josephson, director of the housing law unit at Brooklyn Legal Services, “We see a lot of people who are totally eligible for relief money, but if we didn’t step in and take the case, they’d be out.”
All of this assumes that tenants know they’re entitled to help. Many don’t. One source of obfuscation is the city’s own Human Resources Administration, which launched the Rental Assistance Alert program in an effort to decrease reliance on Jiggetts. RAA units help welfare recipients wrangle money out of family or charities, and workers don’t recommend Jiggetts until all other options have been exhausted. “There are real problems with them not referring cases quickly to the units who do Jiggetts applications,” says Susan Bahn, an attorney with Legal Aid.
Welfare caseworkers also often fail to tell tenants their rights. When a judge gave Anastasia Martinez one month to pay $1,000 in back rent, her caseworker never suggested a visit to CAB. Martinez had received a Jiggetts subsidy in 1998, but lost it during a brief sanction. Jiggetts is not automatically reinstated when a welfare case is reopened, and Martinez was never told she could reapply. Instead, Martinez got her sister to help out with the $791 rent. Her sister lost her job after September 11, and Martinez quickly fell behind.
Luckily, Martinez told a friend she might get evicted, and the friend told her to contact CAB. Now Martinez will have to ask a judge to give her an extension while CAB tries to rush the application.
Even if Jiggetts comes through, though, it will not be enough. Martinez had to ask her brother to pay the more than $150 difference each month. “I have three kids,” she says, “and they gave me one month to get out.”
Nora McCarthy is a City Limits contributing editor.