Eviction Spotlight

NY Courts Extend Hold On Evictions In Latest Twist Of Saga

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (July 8, 2020, 6:40 PM EDT) -- The New York Office of Court Administration on Wednesday extended a pause on evictions and related proceedings at least through Aug. 5, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo chipped away at remaining pandemic-related eviction restrictions.

Tenants rally outside of Brooklyn Housing Court on July 7, criticizing state guidance for the resumption of eviction cases. (Scott Heins for Law360)

Cuomo signed Executive Order 202.48 on Monday night, extending a monthslong suspension of statutory timelines. The extension was the courts' condition for keeping evictions on hold in the short term, while they continue to accept a trickle of new cases filed by mail.

But Cuomo also rescinded standing guidance for residential eviction cases, replacing it with recently signed legislation from state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Greenwich Village, and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Kingsbridge.

When courts eventually resume hearings in eviction cases, the so-called Tenant Safe Harbor Act will prohibit evicting tenants for unpaid rent accrued between March 7 and the complete reopening of their area, so long as a tenant can prove in court that they experienced financial hardship during that period.

However, tenants will have to demonstrate financial hardship before a judge to qualify for this partial eviction moratorium. Judges can also issue money judgments against tenants.

In light of this new law, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks amended court guidance "in one important respect," according to a new memorandum from the judge dated Tuesday.

Specifically, landlords and their attorneys no longer need to submit an affidavit stating that their tenant was not financially impacted by the pandemic before commencing a new nonpayment case.

This removes "a major impediment to the commencement of housing court proceedings," the Rent Stabilization Association, a real estate trade group, wrote in guidance distributed to landlord attorneys this week. 

Even so, the RSA continued, "it is important to remember that unless and until the Office of Court Administration is able to effectively re-open the housing courts … cases that are commenced in the upcoming weeks are destined to languish for quite some time to come."

While New York housing courts began accepting new eviction cases June 22, Judge Marks' guidance — largely renewed this week — deterred and frustrated landlord attorneys.

Since then, just 13 new eviction cases have been filed in New York City, according to the Office of Court Administration.

Wednesday's court guidance is the latest twist in a complicated saga in which administrative judges have issued guidance based on their best interpretation of shifting directives coming from the state capital in Albany.

"It's a horrible situation for tenants to have that level of uncertainty and this constant chopping and changing," said Marika Dias, managing director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Particularly concerning to advocates, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act does not address the fate of tenants who received eviction warrants before mid-March. Today's announcement protects these tenants from being removed from their homes for now. But attorneys say they will be vulnerable when eviction proceedings resume. 

In New York City, a court directive that would require landlords to jump through an extra hurdle before reissuing such warrants will "most likely" be rescinded, according to courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen. 

The city has identified more than 14,000 households that received a warrant of eviction before the pandemic and lack legal representation, according to the Office of Civil Justice within the Department of Social Services.

Last week, DSS sent fliers to more than 2,000 households, with information about how to access a free lawyer through the city's right-to-counsel program. More mailings are expected this week.

"What we've been advocating for is all those tenants should be matched with lawyers and nothing should proceed until they have representation," Dias told Law360.

How and where tenant eviction cases will eventually play out remains to be seen. To date, the Office of Court Administration has held virtual conferences over Skype, in an effort to prevent heavy foot traffic in court buildings.

Meanwhile, tenant groups are continuing to demand that the state cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic. A new bill from state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Flatbush, would prohibit evictions, new case filings and money judgments for a full year after the state lifts its final pandemic-related restrictions.

Esteban Giron, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, told Law360 that plans are also underway for eviction defense training — physical blockades of protesters to protect tenants when marshals arrive. 

Related tactics were put to the test Tuesday night, when a group of tenants in an apartment building on Dean Street in Brooklyn requested backup because their landlord — who they say has been pressuring them to move out — was on the premises.

Dozens of protesters arrived and chanted for hours, occupying the steps of the building until the landlord left. A skeleton crew remained overnight as lookouts.

"It's encouraging how quickly [that action] came together," Giron told Law360 afterward. "I get the feeling there's going to be a lot more of these."

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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