Evictions create crises for families. They fuel homelessness, strain fragile family dynamics, hamper school performance and can lead to job loss. There’s been a growing amount of attention paid to this fact, reflected in the city’s decision in 2017 to create a “right to counsel” for people facing eviction in New York City. The de Blasio administration has pointed to a shrinking level of evictions as a sign of progress. Still, in New York City, nearly 20,000 households were evicted last year.
Data on the city’s evictions has been recently made public but, there has been little attention paid to the role that the city’s largest landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, plays in contributing to evictions. New analysis by City Limits shines a light on their role.
At 0.4 percent of its total units, NYCHA’s eviction rate is lower than the citywide rate. And NYCHA needs rent money to survive.
But the data and a look into the process of eviction from NYCHA paint a picture of a complicated system that potentially places families at risk of homelessness while also punishing individuals who attempt to withhold rent for enduring sub-standard conditions.
Meanwhile, there are signs that a new NYCHA program to raise additional capital by transferring some developments to private management is leading to an even higher rate of evictions, raising questions about that program’s future impact.
City Limits analyzed data published by the city’s Department of Investigation, the body that oversees City Marshals who carry out evictions. The New York City Council’s Data Team, the Housing Data Coalition and The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project cleaned the data prior to City Limits’ analysis. (See below for more on our methodology).
NYCHA disputes those numbers. The housing authority provided alternative data, compiled from internal sources, indicating that it evicted 561 units in 2018. It declined to provide more information about how this data is compiled.
One thing is clear: the NYCHA’s data does not include properties that have been transitioned under the Rental Assistance Demonstration project, NYCHA’s program to transfer developments to private management. 8,370 units have been signed over as of January 2019.
A punishing process
For a tenant to be evicted from NYCHA, a judge in the city’s civil courts must approve it.
In housing court, NYCHA brings cases against tenants who don’t pay or who violate other policies. Tenants who are not listed on the lease may face a proceeding. So might tenants who repeatedly disturb other residents.
It’s not clear how many eviction cases NYCHA brings—representatives for the housing authority declined to provide data regarding housing court actions-— but the numbers are in the multiple tens of thousands per year. A search in the New York City Civil Courts database for housing-related cases with the New York City Housing Authority as the plaintiff brought up more than 10,000 for just a three month period in 2018. The vast majority of them are for non-payments of rent.
In the majority of those, the tenants allege that the landlord has violated the lease for failing to correct conditions in the apartment.
Before a nonpayment case ends up in court, NYCHA will reach out to tenants first to remind them to pay the rent and inquire about why they haven’t. A representative for the housing authority says that such action begins after a tenant fails to pay for two consecutive months.
If the initial outreach doesn’t lead to payment, the tenant will receive a notice asking them to appear in court and submit an answer.
In housing court landlords bring the cases; tenants rarely do. The leverage is on the landlords’ side. To take a single-day sample, on a recent July day in Brooklyn Civil Court’s NYCHA part, there were 71 nonpayment cases on the calendar and just four actions brought by tenants.
Many tenants simply don’t appear. An examination of 100 nonpayment cases brought against residents in a Far Rockaway development shows that in 74, the tenant defaulted, failing to appear in court. This puts them at significantly greater risk of eviction. Failing to appear results in the default issuance of a warrant of eviction. The next thing the tenant knows, the eviction notice might be posted on their door.
“If you wanted to stop NYCHA evictions, the thing to do would be to make sure [tenants] show up,” says Ed Josephson, director of litigation and housing for Legal Services NYC, another nonprofit legal group.
Landlords with leverage
It’s possible tenants aren’t even receiving the legal notice to appear in court says Sateesh Nori, attorney in charge at Legal Aid’s Queens Neighborhood office.
“We’ve seen many weird cases where papers are not necessarily served. Shortcuts are taken,” he says.
This happened to Rockaway resident Nicole Huston. Without having heard anything else, she received a notice of eviction in the mail. Because it was delivered late, she had just three days to respond in court. Her experience is not uncommon, says Nori.
Even if you do receive notice, making a court appearance can be difficult. It could require a tenant to take time off from work, and perhaps find and potentially pay for care for children—both of which could deplete the money a person has to pay back rent. Then there’s getting to the courthouse. “It’s an extreme hardship for very poor vulnerable people to have to travel an hour and a half to face eviction,” Nori says, referring to the distance between Far Rockaway and Jamaica, where Queens Civil Court is located.
Meanwhile, if a judgment is made against a tenant, it is quite difficult to appeal. They must get someone—a friend, relative, lawyer—to serve the landlord with papers on their behalf. They need a notarized statement and a $30 fee, as well as multiple copies of the court forms. There are more court appearances, too.
Karen Hobbs faced this situation in Brooklyn’s civil court recently. Judge Marcia Skiowitz had issued a judgment against her authorizing a warrant of eviction. The notice of eviction from the city marshals would be issued within days.
Hobbs’ mother had moved out of the apartment following an illness resulting from a fire. In the intervening period, rent arrears piled up. Hobbs had been living there, but NYCHA didn’t have records of her on the lease. Infuriated, Hobbs said that she was on the lease and that she had met with a NYCHA clerk to make the transfer months earlier.
Resolving this was out of the judge’s purview. Based on the lease, she had to rule against Hobbs.
Tenants facing non-payments fall into two main camps, says Sikowitz, who presides over the NYCHA part in Brooklyn’s civil court and hears hundreds of nonpayment cases each week: “those who are affirmatively withholding rent to get repairs” and “those who are having difficulties paying, for whatever reason, and they have problems in their apartment.”
Dominique Watt appeared in Skiowitz’s court facing a nonpayment case recently. She said she was withholding rent because of the conditions in her Sheepshead Bay apartment. “I’m not able to cook. I can’t do much on my stove. The back of the sink has mold,” she says. “I’ve been waiting since November 2018.” It was her third time back in court.
Another tenant, Rosalind, who declined to provide a last name, said she was there for the same reason. “I really don’t have a problem with paying my rent. I really like where I live and I don’t want to lose that place,” she says. “But I beg with them just to service my apartment. All you gotta do is provide the service and I’ll bring you my bills.”
She has lived in NYCHA’s Howard Houses in East New York for over 25 years and says she has been asking for a new door since the year 2000. The gas in the complex has been out since early June.
Tenants such as Whitney Diggs fall behind in rent not because of protest, but because of financial challenges. As a single mother of three children, one of whom has epilepsy and requires special attention, she has missed several rent payments.
“Sometimes it is just hard paying and getting through life and taking care of him and taking care of other issues,” she says.
Rent for tenants at NYCHA is calculated annually to be 30 percent of the household’s income. Cash assistance from the city is included in the income assessment, but Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments are not. Families with children with disabilities can deduct some costs of care from their income.
Diggs says she is on the brink of eviction. She came to court to ask for more time to pay. She needed to rush to pick up her child after her case is heard. When it was, she received a stern reprimand from the judge.
“You are putting yourself and your child at risk of being homeless,” Skiowitz said loudly from the bench.
Repairs ordered but never made
When tenants withhold rent to force repairs, It often doesn’t work. The housing court process doesn’t make it easy for them.
Typically, tenants will reach a settlement with NYCHA in which they agree to pay the rent owed. The problem, however, is that the settlement rarely actually forces NYCHA to do the repairs.
“If it’s a pro se [self-represented] individual, it says, ‘The payment is due by X date, oh and in addition to that—I have conditions in my apartment’,” says Lucy Newman, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society whose work focuses on NYCHA. Legal Aid lawyers would negotiate a different settlement. The firm tried unsuccessfully to win back rent payments to NYCHA residents last year in light of the severe maintenance issues that had been exposed at the authority.
NYCHA frequently just doesn’t show up. Or, if it does, an inspector will note the problem and close the work order. “There is little, if any, correlation between closing work orders and completing the repair of a problem,” a recent report by the housing authority’s federal monitor said.
“So they go back to court next time and make the same assertions and they set up new time to go and, you know, it just falls on deaf ears,” says Newman. “The resident could keep filing a motion to say that NYCHA is in contempt of their agreement to make these repairs but most often, residents have many more important things to do in their lives than keep going back to housing court and try to get an order that they’re likely not going to get anyway,” she says.
An eviction will occur if the tenant doesn’t return to court or pay the rent.
After an eviction
The majority of all evictions in New York City are simply lockouts, where the locks are changed and the tenant’s things remain in the apartment for the tenant to recover. The landlord can request one or the other.
When NYCHA evicts a tenant, it’s typically a full eviction, meaning that the city Marshal arranges for the tenants belongings to be removed from the property.
“Full evictions are the worst types of evictions,” says Nori. “You have somebody putting your stuff in garbage bags, dumping it in a truck and driving it to a storage facility.”
NYCHA declined to comment on their policy.
The vulnerability of NYCHA residents raises serious concerns about how an eviction affects them.
“It is our understanding that if they are evicted, there is a high likelihood that they are going to become homeless,” says Newman. “They are the most low-income individuals. They’re unlikely to be able to afford a market-rate apartment.”
It is impossible to know how many families end up in the shelter system from NYCHA developments. The city’s Department of Homeless Services does not track the prior residence of shelter admissions. A recent study, however, finds that 25 percent of percent of shelter entrants faced a housing emergency because of an eviction.
If NYCHA residents are entering the homeless shelter system, it’s at great cost to the residents themselves and enormous cost to the city. The city reported it cost $117 per day to house a single adult in a shelter. The cost to house a family in shelter was $187 per day. This is astronomically higher than the cost of housing a NYCHA tenant rent-free. And if families are ending up in the shelter system, it is likely to be for an extended period of time. The city’s Department of Homeless Services reports that the average length of stay for a family in shelter is more than 400 days.
The city is not blind to this. A program helps all qualifying tenants facing eviction pay back rent. The “One Shot Deal” is a grant intended to help tenants in dire circumstances avoid eviction and shelters. It also covers moving expenses or other emergency costs. The city’s Human Resources Administration gave 62,000 households grants to pay back rent in 2018. Some 13,900 of them— 22 percent—were families living in NYCHA properties.
This is one example NYCHA cites in its defense, saying it does everything it can to avoid eviction.
“While we often work with our residents to keep them in their homes and termination is never our preferred route, we unfortunately at times must take action when residents fail to pay their rent after we have conducted extensive outreach to find another solution,” NYCHA Deputy Press Secretary Michael Giardina said in a statement.
NYCHA faces a difficult situation. Perhaps as a result of its repair problems and its role housing some of the city’s poorest residents, it reports that 31 percent of households are rent-delinquent, meaning their payments are late—a number that has risen a few percentage points, from 27 percent three years ago. It also says it only collects 92 percent of its rent annually—a rate that has fallen from 95 percent in the past three years.
Multiple sources interviewed said that, compared with other landlords, NYCHA’s legal department is not particularly aggressive when it comes to evictions. Whether intentionally or because of short-staffing, it regularly gives tenants more time to comply with eviction notices and allows tenants to request more time paying back rent.
But it needs rent money to make the repairs the tenants are demanding. Rental revenue from tenants makes up one third of NYCHA’s budget.
Progress and evictions in Queens
Aside from significant oversight from a new federally appointed monitor, the current best hope for NYCHA is a controversial strategy to transfer developments to private management to help raise money for repairs. RAD (for Rental Assistance Demonstration) involves handing operation of housing developments to private partnerships and shifting the funding source from public housing (Section 9) to rental vouchers (Section 8). With a private operator and a steady source of funds, the development can then borrow money to make repairs.
While RAD offers some hope for NYCHA’s maintenance backlog and bottom line, a look at NYCHA evictions by development suggests the new program might also result in more evictions.
The flagship development for NYCHA’s private management strategy is also the top location for evictions between 2018 and February 2019.
The Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway were the first development to be transferred under NYCHA’s RAD plan. They have been heralded as a huge success. The Ocean Bay Houses were in need of huge amounts of repairs following years of neglect and major damage for Hurricane Sandy. At Ocean Bay, a ribbon cutting was held in June to celebrate the completion of more than $500 million in renovations. The campus looks well kept. New signage is everywhere. New boiler units are visible. Hallways and the grounds are clean. Residents have generally been happy with the repairs.
But over a 26 month period, 80 households were evicted there, more than double the next highest development, Brownsville, where 49 units were evicted.
The new landlord, a partnership between a developer and a management company, brought more than 300 cases in housing court against tenants there since taking over in late 2016. With 1,395 units, that’s a case for every five units; 290 of them were for nonpayment of rent.
Nicole Huston moved to Ocean Bay Houses a year before it was transferred to Wavecrest. Last year, her job became part-time, resulting in a significant change in income. She filed with the landlord to adjust her rent but it didn’t go through. In the process, she wasn’t able to pay the full amount.
“They didn’t adjust it when I did the recertification at the beginning of the year,” she says
After going back to court for months, requesting more time to pay, she was evicted from her apartment in May.
After paying back rent, she eventually regained access.
It is difficult to explain the discrepancy in evictions at Ocean Bay. NYCHA didn’t comment on the data. But one possibility is that the private landlord could simply be bringing nonpayment cases more aggressively than NYCHA does. While NYCHA waits two months, the RAD lease says nonpayment proceedings can commence after 14 days of nonpayment.
“Theoretically, with the efficiency of running and maintaining a building, also comes the efficiency of evicting,” says Nori.
“For projects converted under HUD’s RAD program, Wavecrest dutifully follows the official grievance procedures as outlined by the RAD program through NYCHA,” Wavecrest Management Group’s Chief Financial Officer Susan Camerata said in a statement. “Beyond what is required, our team works with residents to acquire assistance from various organizations based on their individual circumstance to reach an agreement whenever possible.”
RAD tenants have the same legal rights as NYCHA tenants. NYCHA has said this repeatedly but a small group of residents has been rallying against the RAD plan. The evictions data could bring new scrutiny to the deals. “That’s the untold story of what is happening,” says Louis Flores, a tenant activist behind the group Fight For NYCHA. “The mayor says Ocean Bay is as success but I’ve been telling people that long term we are going to be seeing evictions at Ocean Bay,” he says.
Do you have experience with termination of tenancy proceedings at NYCHA? We want to hear your story. Tell us about your experience in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Data for this article was compiled from information gathered from the city’s Department of investigation which was compiled by the New York City Council and the Housing Data Coalition and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. We matched evictions with NYCHA BBL codes pulled from current and historical NYCHA development guides. Developments that were transitioned under PACT were not present in the guide but were included by using an earlier version of the guide.