‘I’m Scared’: Thousands in New York Public Housing Are Behind on Rent

Tens of thousands of residents of New York City public housing, many of whom lost their jobs after the city locked down two years ago, have fallen behind on their rent, raising fears that it will set off a rise in evictions.

The problem has been compounded because public housing tenants have so far been shut out of a depleted pandemic rent relief program.

The New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, which runs the nation’s largest public housing system, is owed more than $364 million of the rent it charged in 2021, the largest level of unpaid rent ever, the agency said.

More than 68,000 households, roughly 42 percent of all households living in public housing, had overdue rent as of November 2021, according to the agency.

The bleak picture has left many residents fearful that they may eventually lose their homes, deepening the city’s housing crisis.

“I’m scared that I’m going to get evicted,” said Eileen Dominick, who lives in NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses development in Brooklyn and says she owes more than $3,000. “I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t have anywhere to go. I wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment with the market today.”

The fear is also fueled by NYCHA’s past practices. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 40,000 evictions cases were filed against NYCHA tenants annually, according to data from the New York State Office of Court Administration collected by the Housing Data Coalition and the Right to Counsel Coalition. The cases stemmed from missed rent payments as well as issues like property damage.

NYCHA sent an email to residents last month saying that it planned to “restart nonpayment eviction proceedings” after the state’s eviction moratorium expired in mid-January.

But housing authority officials now acknowledge that filing a huge number of lawsuits could overwhelm courtrooms and hurt tenants. Officials said they would instead focus on a smaller group that owed a large amount of rent from before the pandemic.

“We want to make sure that we are pursuing evictions as a matter of last resort,” Lisa Bova-Hiatt, NYCHA’s general counsel, said in an interview.

Still, NYCHA will have to contend with the back rent accumulated during the pandemic, raising concerns among tenants and housing advocates that it may ultimately start taking a harder line.

“All residents really can do is rely on NYCHA’s good faith in being thoughtful about which cases they bring,” said Lucy Newman, a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society.

New York City’s public housing system is the largest in the nation. Its official population of about 350,000 is larger than the cities of Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Orlando.

And it is home to many of the lowest-income New Yorkers. The median NYCHA household makes $16,956 a year, compared with the median across New York City, which is $64,000. NYCHA’s median monthly rent, which is generally capped at 30 percent of a tenant’s income, is $389, about 73 percent below the citywide median.

There is enormous demand for a NYCHA home: More than 250,000 applicants are on a wait list, according to the agency.

And the pandemic’s economic pain has fallen far more harshly on people of lesser means.

Because NYCHA rents are based on a tenant’s income, many people seek to avoid falling behind by reportingfinancial hardships, like a job loss, and asking for a rent reduction. In 2019, before the pandemic, NYCHA received just over 17,000 such requests from tenants. That figure rose to more than 37,000 in 2020, and more than 23,000 last year.

Still, the share of households behind on rent has grown during the pandemic, with roughly 42 percent in arrears in November 2021, compared with more than 35 percent in November 2019.

The mountain of unpaid rent is also exacerbating the public housing agency’s already dire financial condition.

After decades of decreasing investment from the federal government, as well as years of mismanagement, NYCHA estimates it needs a staggering $40 billion to improve living conditions in its aging developments. Tenants frequently complain of water leaks, mold, lead paint, broken elevators and nonfunctional heating systems.

The housing authority relies on rent for about a quarter of the money it uses to run its day-to-day operations. After collecting more than $1 billion in rent in 2019, the agency collected $964 million in 2020 and only $898 million in 2021.

Greg Russ, NYCHA’s chairman and chief executive, said he did not know how the housing authority would compensate for the rent decrease, but insisted it could find a way to “bridge” the gap.

A more permanent solution, he said, involves pressing elected officials to make bigger investments in NYCHA’s aging infrastructure.

President Biden’s $2.2 trillion spending bill, known as Build Back Better, could have funneled billions of dollars to NYCHA before it stalled in Congress. And Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams have not put forward any specific new spending plan for the housing authority.

That has left tenants facing an uncertain future.

Before moving to the Red Hook Houses 25 years ago, Ms. Dominick said she had been homeless. Public housing, she added, is the only home she can afford in New York — her monthly rent is less than $900.

Eileen Dominick owes $3,000 in rent for her apartment in the Red Hook Houses Development in Brooklyn and worries she may face eviction. “I wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment with the market today,” she said.Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

But Ms. Dominick, an administrative assistant at a foster care agency, is struggling to pay back roughly $3,000 in missed payments from 2020, when the pandemic forced her to spend more on cleaning products and food for her daughters, who had to stay home from school.

Compounding her anxiety is the roadblock NYCHA residents have encountered trying to tap into the state’s $2.1 billion rent relief program, which has put people living in subsidized housing among the last in line for aid. With all of the relief funds having been spent or spoken for, it’s unclear if there is money left for public housing tenants.

Ms. Dominick applied for rent relief in the summer, one of roughly 28,000 applications submitted on behalf of NYCHA residents seeking an estimated $105 million in relief, according to the housing authority. All of those applications are pending.

“I don’t think it’s fair, to be up in the air like this,” Ms. Dominick said.

In the past, NYCHA took a generally aggressive approach to tenants who owed rent, not hesitating to bring eviction cases against them.

Only a tiny fraction of people were actually evicted — fewer than 700 people each year between 2016 and 2018, according to NYCHA — but even the filing of a case can make it much harder for people applying for jobs or other housing.

The number of filings shrank to just 14 in 2021, according to court data, as NYCHA moved to halt evictions during the pandemic and New York State imposed an eviction moratorium.

Ms. Bova-Hiatt said she could not say that NYCHA would never pursue an eviction case against someone who owed rent during the pandemic. But she said that the focus would be on a group of about 2,600 households that have owed money from before, totaling about $50 million in arrears.

People who apply for rent relief are shielded from eviction while their cases are pending.

Still, many tenants are anxious, said Robert Sanderman, a senior staff lawyer at Legal Services NYC, who has been representing NYCHA tenants.

“Some people literally just think their landlord can just kick them out tomorrow,” he said.

Raquel Thomas, 30, who lives in the Ocean Bay Apartments in Queens, had already fallen behind on rent in 2019. She had problems receiving her disability benefits, she said. Ms. Thomas was pregnant at the time and did not have a job.

Ocean Bay is one of several NYCHA developments that the agency turned over to private management, as part of a plan to raise money for repairs and renovations. The property manager, Wavecrest Management, sued Ms. Thomas in housing court in March 2020.

Ms. Thomas struggled to find work during the pandemic, and has accumulated $7,000 in missed rent payments. She applied for rent relief last year, but her request and the case against her are pending.

Susan Camerata, chief financial officer of Wavecrest, did not directly address Ms. Thomas’s case, but said in a statement that Wavecrest was connecting residents with aid programs or social services on a case-by-case basis to try to prevent evictions.

Ms. Thomas, however, fears she may wind up losing her home and has considered draining her savings to pay back her debt.

“I don’t know what to do at this point,” she said.

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