In New York state, evictions through housing court resumed on June 22 after months of being shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Tenants in all five New York City boroughs, Rochester, and, Binghamton, Albany and Buffalo responded with large-scale protests that day to voice their opposition to the return of housing court and landlords’ ability to evict tenants, many of whom have lost work due to the economic recession.
The stakes of eviction extend beyond just housing, and into other areas of people’s lives. “We have to talk about how it’s all connected,” said Jabari Brisport, an educator and democratic socialist candidate running on the Democratic ticket for the State Senate, outside of Brooklyn’s civil court, outlining the intersections between housing, race, health and education. “Because when one of us doesn’t feel safe in our homes, then none of us can feel safe in our homes. We are not out here just to fight for my right to stay in my home, or your right to stay in your home, but every single person to stay in their home.”
In the face of what some advocates predict to be a wave of 50,000 new evictions, the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance is calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to enact a “true, universal eviction moratorium,” which would include:
1. Extend the universal eviction moratorium.
2. Ensure the right to council in housing court.
3. Slow the number of eviction cases held in housing court.
4. Pass Good Cause Eviction legislation which would mandate landlords show “just cause” for not renewing leases.
5. Hold accountable landlords who do not provide tenants adequate living conditions.
6. Prioritize health, safety and accessibility of everyone involved in housing court.
The potential spread of coronavirus in newly opened housing courts is also driving the push for their re-closure. Although the state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA) says that most business will be conducted virtually, those who are in the actual courthouses could be vulnerable. Some courthouse staff have already been back at work since June 10. Despite OCA’s reassurance that “[p]hysical distancing and other steps restricting courthouse traffic will be enforced,” narrow hallways at one Brooklyn courthouse appeared to be crowded and incompatible with social distancing, as Gothamist captured in a video.
The NYC protests themselves drew connections between the impending eviction wave and the militarized New York Police Department that has been the subject of calls for defunding and abolition. The Housing Justice 4 All campaign has described law enforcement’s role in “executing evictions and breaking up homeless encampments,” as “exist[ing] to protect landlords’ private property.”
— #CANCELRENT Housing Justice For All (@housing4allNY) June 22, 2020
Some advocates argue that now is simply not the time to open eviction cases that are already embroiled in ideological contention. “[I]n moments of crisis like the present pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations and other protests against systemic police brutality,” wrote a group of legal service and advocacy organizations in a June 10 letter to the judge overseeing the statewide court system, “dispute resolution in civil matters is not our City’s most pressing need and, in fact, can jeopardize public health and safety.”
“The capitalist society prioritizes property rights over tenants’ rights, workers rights, and human rights,” said Marcela Mitaynes, a democratic socialist candidate running on the Democratic ticket for the State Assembly. “Now is our time to stand and dismantle this system that isn’t working.”