In the middle of a triple pandemic – coronavirus, economic hardship, and systemic racism – housing courts in New York City reopened on June 22nd. Ironically, opening courts will put tens of thousands of tenants of color in danger, and lead to increased illness, homelessness, and a weakened city.
Race-neutral actors like a virus nonetheless wreak the most destruction along racial lines, although public money bails out large corporations and not those who have the most to lose. The present moment provides an excellent view of gentrification, as thousands of longtime, low-income New Yorkers of color stand to lose their apartments, and the real estate industry profits in their wake.
The Black Lives Matter movement calls for public investment in the stability and well-being of communities, including protecting affordable housing. As housing advocates providing free representation to tenants at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A (Brooklyn A), we witness the violence eviction enacts on communities of color. We stand with clients in a time of crisis, where they reckon with the fear of becoming homeless. We help navigate a legal and administrative web designed to support landlords and the commodification of housing. We fight for people’s homes in an economy oriented towards making housing less available and affordable.
Evictions stopped when the Office of Court Administration issued a suspension on landlords’ ability to evict tenants in March. This stall provided no answer to what happens after it ends. Even with a second eviction moratorium due to end on August 20th, our clients still don’t know if they can stay in their homes. About 30-40% of Black New York renters do not know if they will be able to pay rent next month, in contrast with 10% of white renters. The surge of evictions anticipated after the moratorium lifts will amount to an act of violence. Now, more than ever, in the middle of a pandemic, this is not an abstract statement. By reopening the courts, tenants will have to risk their lives to save their housing. The long lines and narrow hallways of the city’s five housing courts make social distancing impossible. The courts have done little to plan for or implement adequate safety precautions or legal protections for tenants.
Any equitable solution to the crisis will place the least burden on the most vulnerable. Now, because of economic hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, most tenants in housing court will have to apply for financial assistance. Nowhere near the total impacted tenants qualify for this funding. Those who are eligible will have to wade through bureaucratic red tape to keep a roof over their head. Meanwhile, the real estate industry will spend its money litigating evictions.
The Black Lives Matter movement calls for restructuring our public resources, going beyond questioning the criminal justice system, to demanding economic justice. There are more common-sense solutions to the crisis than the real estate industry evicting thousands of New Yorkers. The government has the power to provide financial relief for qualifying landlords as businesses. This would be much less administrative expense than requiring tens of thousands of individual renters to do the same—and would prevent courts clogging with thousands of new eviction cases during a public health crisis.
We have a pandemic disproportionately impacting minorities in a country that disproportionately kills minorities in a city that disproportionately evicts minorities. This is why we stand with Black Lives Matter. This is why Brooklyn A stood with over 18 other legal services providers in opposing the city courts’ move to reopen. This is part of our fight for a more just country.