Health officials advised people to stay home as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. More than a year later, some renters worry about the future of their safe spaces as eviction moratorium deadlines loom.
Landlords also worry about losing their properties and grapple with financial blows from months-late rent. Some fear for their lives.
Around 200 New York landlords hollered “stop killing landlords” and “give back our property” at a rally outside the governor’s office on Aug. 20. They waved pennants that ranged from American flags to a banner for a Chinatown business association. Signs declared that in order to pay taxes, they first need rent.
The landlords were fighting to end the local eviction moratorium they say has endangered finances and livelihoods during the coronavirus pandemic, by stopping them from removing nonpaying tenants.
That same weekend, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, tenant advocates also took to the sidewalks. But they were calling for the moratorium to continue — lest thousands of renters be put out of their homes with little warning as the delta variant spreads. Protesters laid “body bags” in front of the Bronx Housing Court to signify the lives at stake.
In one sense, the two sides are in locked battle. In another, the dueling protests show how closely their fates are bound together. The pandemic has hurt both landlords and tenants, who are tethered in a relationship where if a hardship happens to one, it reverberates to the other.
And as local eviction bans have begun to expire in a domino cascade across the states, the slowly simmering crisis may reach its boiling point. A limited federal eviction moratorium ended Aug. 27, as the Supreme Court struck down an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some at-risk tenants live already packed in boxes, never knowing when the doorbell will ring. Landlords, many with their own pressing financial concerns, wait for rent that may not have been paid for more than a year. Bob Stivers, for one, says he is owed $110,000 and counting on his Geneva, New York, units.
Despite the obvious hardships on both sides, there is little evidence that a large new wave of tenants has decided not to pay their rent. About 95% of tenants paid their rent each month between April and July 2021, according to the National Multifamily Housing Survey — compared with 96.7% during the same months in 2019.
But during local and federal eviction moratoriums, many nonpaying tenants have been locked in place. And the debt has piled up. Renters across the country owe more than $20 billion in arrears, according to research firm PolicyLink.
And despite a $46 billion federal rental assistance program meant to offer relief to both landlords and tenants, local jurisdictions have struggled to distribute the money. Barely a tenth of those funds had been distributed by mid-August.
Advocates fear a crushing wave of pent-up evictions.
“We just need time,” said legal aid attorney Joshua Goldblum, with Legal Aid Services of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “Time for the program to get up to speed. Time for tenants to apply for rental assistance, and time for rental assistance to get to the landlord.”
Even with many lockouts stopped, the legal process has continued. Eviction rulings have slowly accumulated. When lockouts are put into motion, said Goldblum, tenants could be put onto the street with very little notice. And if that happens, he said, landlords will be unlikely to retrieve the money they’re owed.
We spoke with the people at the heart of this crisis. Tenants who have averted evictions with the help of federal assistance. People who have lost their job and now fear losing their home. Landlords who still owe the bank even when their tenants haven’t paid rent in months — and who have lost faith the money will ever come.
Here are snapshots from an eviction crisis.
Landlords rally for their property
Rosanna Morey is battling both an incurable cancer and a tenant who won’t leave her house, long after the lease expired. She juggles three jobs between weekly chemotherapy treatments to make up for the rent she isn’t collecting.
Mohammed Chowahury’s wife also struggles with health problems and shouldn’t work, he said, but took a job at a day care to make ends meet. Like Morey, their tenants stopped paying rent. But the Chowahurys, who rent in Queens, can’t evict them.
Nearly 200 people at a New York landlords rally in late August sang similar tunes. Property owners gathered in front of the governor’s Manhattan office to demand an end to the eviction moratorium that intended to help renters stay housed. Protesters say COVID-19 assistance does not take them into consideration.
“I should not foot the bill for someone who is staying in my house because the government is allowing it,” Morey said. “We’re asking for that ban to be lifted because these people that are taking advantage are wrong in every sense of the word.”
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Morey said her tenant refused to leave when she asked her to vacate the space so Morey’s sister could move into to her Long Island home. Because the renter’s lease expired, Morey legally cannot accept rent even if the tenant decided to pay. She also couldn’t evict her with the moratorium in place, which protected tenants from eviction if they claimed the pandemic caused them financial hardship.
“When asked why she stays, her answer was ‘because I effing can,’ ” Morey said. “There’s absolutely no reason why she couldn’t move. [She is] basically doing it to be spiteful.”
The New York landlords rally crowd was filled with mostly mom-and-pop property owners who, like Morey, offer small rentals like rooms in the homes they also live in. Many believe rental assistance legislation is flawed and doesn’t delineate properly to care for smaller landlords like them.
Signs read “Give back my property” and “Stop killing landlords.” One landlord, Sherry Shi, worries about staying alive during the moratorium.
She became homeless as a result of a tenant who has not paid rent for nearly 28 months, starting before the pandemic. Shi uses rent income from the house she leases to pay for her own apartment. But without that money, she was forced to move out, and the tenants won’t leave her property.
“She does not want to do the same bad thing as the tenant does to her to her landlord,” Shi’s friend, Jennifer Chou, said on her behalf. “That’s why she chose to move out. She has nowhere to go.”
Chou and Shi bonded over shared struggles COVID-19 inflicted on their rental ownership. Chou said she lost $80,000 during the eviction moratorium. Her tenant “totally damaged” the property — an apartment below where Chou lives with her family — and she cannot afford to fix it.
“The government not paying me a penny,” Chou said. “I don’t understand why government do those kinds of things to us.”
Lawyer for the day: Tenant court in Philadelphia
If you’re going to lose your home in Philadelphia, it will probably happen in a rented room on the sixth floor of the historic Widener Building.
But first, you must get there.
The building’s Chestnut Street entrance is nearly unmarked and tucked between a steakhouse and a closed Italian bistro, so hard to find that attorney Jacob Speidel said tenants in danger of eviction regularly miss their court times. Sweat Fitness, a nearby gym, has posted directions to the courthouse in its front window as an ersatz public service.
Speidel is a rarity in a U.S. court system where access to lawyers is often the sole province of landlords — the equivalent of a public defender for tenants. Alongside New York City and Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia’s Lawyer of the Day program makes it one of few cities in the country to fund pro bono attorneys for tenants.
Most tenants, Speidel said, are surprised to meet him.
A slight-framed man with dusty brown hair, Speidel exudes the studied calm of someone who has spent plenty of time near calamity. In a three-hour morning session, he might take on the cases of as many as five tenants he’s met only minutes before — mediating agreements, negotiating for extra time to get funding, and in rare cases going to trial almost immediately.
“Sometimes that goes well,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t.”
With leverage offered by a local eviction diversion program and federal rent assistance, legal aid has been successful during the pandemic, said attorney Jenna Collins of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which coordinates the Lawyer of the Day program with attorneys from a host of local nonprofits. In 70% or more of cases, legal aid has been able to secure time for funding to come through.
“It’s a very valuable program,” Speidel said. “It’s also a hectic program. It requires full attention.”
In previous years, Philadelphia was the fourth-busiest landlord-tenant court in the country, a packed house that might cram 80 cases into a morning session — evicting as many as 15% of tenants each year in some low-income neighborhoods.
Filings have dropped by about 75% from pre-pandemic levels, according to statistics kept by Princeton’s Eviction Lab. But eviction cases are still moving forward, six each 45 minutes like grim clockwork.
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During the pandemic, Courtroom 3 looks less like a stately hall of justice than bonus space in an office park. Clear sheets of plastic unfurl from its low ceiling. A Jenga tower of court benches sits sequestered behind garlands of police tape — replaced by a smattering of socially distanced chairs.
Its hallmarks are tedium and silence, marked by the occasional fireworks of lives at their brink. During two morning sessions in August, about a third of evictions moved forward without the tenant’s participation.
Fatimah Lockhart was almost one of them.
A single mother, she’d had to pull one of her three small children from his second day in school to attend her morning eviction hearing. Her job as a home health care assistant disappeared because of the pandemic, and so did her access to day care. She’d still been able to make rent for more than a year — in part by cutting hair on the side.
But a glitch made her unemployment benefits disappear this year, she said. And she couldn’t get anyone on the phone to fix it. She applied for federal rent assistance in April, but four months later she’s still waiting.
She showed up with her children to the hearing, hoping to obtain a grace period on rent payment so CARES Act money could come through. But she was so upset with how she was treated during mediation she almost left the courtroom.
Before she did, the court referred her to Speidel.
For each tenant, he lays out the options. He looks up a landlord’s licensing and possible code violations. He acts as a negotiator. And usually, he asks for time to fully prepare their case.
For Lockhart, a little time was what she needed. Time for the federal money to come. Time for school to start, so she can again take a job outside her home. Time, if need be, to mount a legal case over the living conditions at her apartment.
For now, with the help of legal aid, she got it. She has until at least November.
“I’m just not giving up,” Lockhart said. “We’re going to come back to court.”
Taras Mazur, Jersey City landlord
Taras Mazur survived a layoff last year in part because of rental income from the buildings he owns in Jersey City and Newark.
Of the three properties he owns, a lone tenant, who has a disability and has lived at the building for 20 years, has been unable to pay. Considering that some property owners have many more tenants who aren’t paying, Mazur is aware he could be worse off.
Still, the $1,075 in monthly rent he has not received from that tenant since summer 2020 has mushroomed to over $15,000. Mazur has bills to pay, he said. Annual taxes on the three-story duplex built in 1926, on Jersey City’s Randolph Avenue, are about $11,000, city tax records show.
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Mazur, 43, a native of Ukraine, said he filed an application for nonpayment of rent against the tenant last year, the first step toward eviction, but the city did not go through with eviction due to the moratorium. However, he said the tenant has been seeking help from various rental assistance programs after no longer being eligible for the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Section 8), but there have been delays in receiving the money.
“I know the lady … has been going after the programs for over seven months and they still haven’t paid anything,” Mazur said.
Others in his properties have been able to manage.
“Most of my tenants are still paying their rents because they care about their credit scores, and I am checking the credit scores now,” Mazur said.
Jersey City has become unaffordable for renters, a segment that makes up about 70% of households. It is also becoming more unaffordable for landlords.
The fair-market rents for Jersey City as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development range from $1,550 for a studio unit to $2,655 for a four-bedroom apartment.
While the average property tax is $7,279 in Jersey City, which ranks near the bottom third of the state’s 565 municipalities, property owners saw a 7.5% jump in their taxes between 2019 and 2020, the sixth-largest increase in New Jersey, according to the Department of Community Affairs.
New Jersey’s eviction moratorium protects renters who have missed payments from eviction and have eviction court cases dismissed through Dec. 31 if their annual household income is below 80% of their county’s median income, which according to the census is $78,808.
Jersey City tenants have also been helped by the city’s distributing $2.5 million to 1,600 low-income families for rent and utility relief.
Mazur said he has also applied for funds from programs through the city last year such as the Small Landlord Emergency Grant Program, a state effort that covers whatever tenants can’t afford to pay but was unable to receive any funds after submitting numerous documents to a state representative, including bank statements and rent payment slips.
“I sent all the information. It was dragging on, back and forth, send me this, send me that. Then, maybe two days before the deadline, she says the program was being ended,” Mazur said. “She didn’t even say that I was denied or never gave a reason. The program has ended.”
What Mazur went through was not surprising. As reported by NorthJersey.com in November, the program with $25 million set aside saw fewer landlords than expected applying for money, funding slashed by more than 50%, and a small number of applicants approved for grants, which averaged about $5,000.
Without that safety net, Mazur does not have relief from the expenses he has to cover on the building, which he purchased for $460,000 in 2017, following the advice of his Ukrainian parents and friends of not living on just one paycheck.
Mazur noted that after expenses he earns about $900 a month from rentals and sometimes has to put off getting repairs done, such as patching concrete at the back of the house to stop water from leaking into the building’s basement, which a contractor estimated at $5,000.
Mazur worked for 13 years as an IT specialist for the media company Thomson Reuters until he was laid off in October. His income since his severance package lasted until May.
“I still have to pay the taxes; I still have to pay the water bill. I have to pay the bank, the mortgage and everything,” Mazur said. “Every year, this house doesn’t bring me much money, and now the lady is being late, so the $1,000 every month is coming out of my pocket.”
Evelaisha Inostroza, tenant, Rochester
Not every tenant facing eviction wants to stay.
In her apartment in Rochester, New York, 23-year-old Evelaisha Inostroza says she has faced problem after problem in the home she shares with Alberto de Jesus and their 1-year-old daughter. But they have nowhere else to move.
The refrigerator leaked, she said. The toilet leaked and flooded through the ceiling, above electrical wiring she fears makes her apartment a hazard.
“Half of the cords in my apartment are still messing up, like I get sparks in them,” she said. “I’ve been electrocuted one time. It happened once, and I get scared still trying to plug anything in, or have my daughter being around.”
The few repairs that did get completed were hard to come by, she said.
Inostroza’s situation is hardly uncommon in Rochester, said Ritti Singh at the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester — and not just during the pandemic. Census data from 2018 show Rochester as the third-poorest city in the country, where about half of children live in poverty.
“Like many tenants who reach out to us,” Singh said, “she doesn’t actually want to stay in her apartment, because her living conditions are uninhabitable. But because the housing stock is so poor and unaffordable, she’s struggling to find another place to live.”
Instead, Inostroza said, she feels trapped.
The couple came into their apartment as a sublet in September. They lost work during the pandemic, and without a pay stub as proof of income to secure an apartment, they’d drained their savings living in a hotel. Within days of moving into the apartment, she said, her property manager told her he hadn’t received the money she’d given the previous tenant.
This left them paying the first month’s rent and security deposit again, and fighting just to get on a month-to-month lease.
“I paid almost $3,000, just to stay in an apartment for a month,” she said. “I feel like I got stuck living here,” she said.
The relationship with her property manager has been tense, she said, and full of miscommunications over money. Payments have often happened in cash and without receipts, sometimes after a knock at the door — leaving her continually unsure of what they owe, Inostroza said.
During most months they were able to pay, with the help of unemployment and federal stimulus money. Inostroza is also trying to build a home fashion business. But they don’t have funds to move away.
After withholding rent for a month in early 2021 over issues with their landlord, they’ve received eviction notice after eviction notice, but never a court date, Inostroza said. She feels powerless. She’s filed a COVID hardship declaration, she said, and has been compiling evidence of harassment and uninhabitable conditions. She wonders whether she’d be better off in court than dealing with the constant anxiety.
“I’m just trying to have a good life for my daughter,” she said. “I just feel trampled on over and over.”
Jayanti Galaiya, landlord, Warren County, New Jersey
Throughout the 1990s, Jayanti Galaiya, 65, bought three Warren County, New Jersey, homes to have backup income after he was laid off from five Fortune 500 companies within five years.
He typically brings in between $2,000 and $3,000 a month of profit from the 11 families that rent apartments in his houses in Phillipsburg and Washington Township.
But after losing his job when the pandemic struck, he was hit with another blow: Two of the families stopped paying rent.
After 13 months without the $875 and $1,500 monthly payments, he was short more than $30,000 — money he had depended on for expenses, including the approximately $20,000 a year in property taxes on the homes. Costs also went up for garbage collection, and he said he paid more than $5,000 to unclog and snake the drains multiple times in one unit. He is drawing from his retirement account to cover the bills.
“There is no leeway for landlords,” Galaiya said. “The town will penalize me if I’m late one day with taxes.”
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On an August afternoon, Galaiya found a much-needed check in the mail: $10,500 from the Department of Community Affairs to cover a year of back rent for his unit in Phillipsburg.
“This will be a huge relief,” Galaiya said, but he noted that it didn’t reimburse everything. The tenant is behind another monthly payment of $875, and Galaiya recently had to replace four windows when the renter’s son broke them while playing.
Galaiya’s renter in Phillipsburg, Amanda Todd, 32, has problems of her own. She left her job at Walmart to take care of her now 9-year-old son and oversee his education.
“It’s been hell,” Todd said. “I’m in active recovery, and when the pandemic hit I relapsed, so I’m trying to get my life back together. I’m lucky to have a roof over my head, but I don’t feel safe here. I’m looking for a new job and new place to live.”
The rental assistance doesn’t cover Galaiya’s other unit in Washington, where the tenants have since moved out without paying close to $18,000.
Galaiya spoke with multiple buyers interested in purchasing the home in Phillipsburg. But he said the tenant won’t let town inspectors go into the home so he can get an updated certificate of occupancy, which he needs to close a sale.
“I am desperate to get out of this business altogether,” Galaiya said.
‘We could only share so much’
She stopped under the hot sun, as the tenant in front of her pulled out his cellphone.
Ann Aviles wasn’t surprised to hear moments earlier that the man had been struggling with rent. Just as she hadn’t been surprised to see families doubled or tripled up inside Wilmington households, even while a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus tightened its grip on Delaware’s largest city.
These very housing challenges, from one man met living on the street to another woman holding up in an abandoned building, brought her and fellow advocate Shyanne Miller out on the steaming pavement.
Delaware’s Housing Assistance Program had millions still to give. The grassroots organizers understood that eviction moratoriums could help people stay in their homes, for now.
But what stuck with HOMES Campaign members, as the advocacy group took to canvassing across city streets, was just how little tenants knew about it.
“He was calling people; he was texting people; he was letting people know that it existed,” Miller said, recalling that moment among five months of door-to-door canvassing.
“It wasn’t the first moment that had happened,” she continued, under the jagged shade in Judy Johnson Park. “Multiple times I’ve had people stop their cousins driving down the same road. Now we’re double-parked. Somebody’s riding by them. They stopped the other person. The whole road is blocked because they’re telling people: ‘Yo, here’s the thing you don’t know about.’ ”
Perched on the park’s metal bleachers, Aviles looked out at the neighborhood she canvassed nearly a month earlier, taking on a role her group never saw coming. Miller, her co-chair, and members Devon Clark and Delvert Snyder sat beside her.
“When we get through,” Clark said from the top bleacher, “it’s like the heavens opened up or something.”
Team members still go home frustrated.
“The great majority of people, quite honestly, were not aware,” said Aviles, an associate professor and researcher with University of Delaware. Their campaign formally launched in January 2020, hoping to draw residents and advocates together with to explore the state’s housing landscape and identify future policy based on its research.
COVID-19 quickly forced their vision to adapt.
“Canvassing was frustrating because even though we were giving out this information, we did not need to be spending our time giving out information on how to pay your rent,” Miller said. “We could have been knocking on people’s doors focused solely on policy we want to change.”
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After a virtual relaunch by spring 2021, the group canvassed roughly every other Saturday from March to July, trying neighborhood by neighborhood to connect tenants to basic resources.
“Through our conversations with residents, we realized that we need to do more in terms of creating that kind of tenant literacy,” Aviles said, sharing a conclusion she sees mirrored across the region. “And we think the best way to do that is through tenant organizing — because there is strength in numbers.”
Even with waning eviction moratoriums, the push continues for tenant rights.
Delaware introduced a bill this session that would ensure the right to counsel for tenants facing evictions and other landlord-tenant actions, echoing a movement gaining traction in other areas of the country. The legislation stalled in committee.
The Wilmington-based campaign hopes to continue the conversation, while bringing tenant workshops into local neighborhoods.
“We know a lot of people are going to be in eviction court,” Miller said, sensing a looming crisis. “We strongly believe everyone should have reasonable representation, so they actually understand what their rights are. “We could only share so much.”
Cathy Krout, landlord, York
Cathy Krout just wanted to help people by lending them an opportunity to rent a home in York, Pennsylvania, without their credit score determining whether they could move in.
Krout was extended a similar courtesy by the person who got her involved in rent-to-own properties and being a private landlord.
“When he gave me a chance, I felt like I had to give other people a second chance, because I know how it was when I was trying to clean my credit up because of stuff that happened through a marriage,” she said.
Between the low hums and beeps from her oxygen machine, Krout explained that she found joy in fixing up old houses. It was time-consuming looking over four properties, and at one time eight. And it was even a little bit taxing.
Krout lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has been on disability since 2001. But, she enjoyed renting out the houses she worked on and giving people second chances.
Then, the pandemic hit.
The day Krout was going to do a lockout on a property, evicting a tenant for unpaid rent that predated the novel coronavirus, a moratorium was put into place that would delay her efforts.
Krout sought answers from the mayor, senators and governor, but she was continuously routed to the Community Progress Council, which manages York County’s Emergency Rent Assistance Program.
She decided to keep one occupied rental and sell three of her properties on sales agreements, which transferred the properties to buyers for a fixed price. Krout also requested that buyers continue to fix up the properties before she’d sell to them. She estimates, though, that she lost at least $10,000 throughout the pandemic.
In December 2020, Krout also sold the five-bedroom house that she owned and lived in and moved into an 1,100-square-foot unit on a strip of residential property her relative bought in Gettysburg. The shift in scenery would lessen expenses and allow her to be even closer to family.
She still is not in the financial clear. Her sole tenant lost her job during the pandemic and applied for rental assistance in late June, but they’ve been waiting over 60 days to find out if her application has been accepted.
Krout is giving her tenant time. But, she previously had to evict two people from her other properties — one just as the pandemic started and one during.
“I just love helping people, but then people don’t wanna follow the rules. Some of them do and some of them don’t. You get the good with the bad,” she said.
When asked if she ever again would be a full-time landlord, Krout quickly shook her head, tugging at the two clear tubes dangling from behind her ears and trailing across her chest.
Sammy Gibbons, Matthew Korfhage, Ricardo Kaulessar, Kelly Powers and Jasmine Vaughn-Hall are culture reporters for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. Ashley Balcerzak covers affordable housing for North Jersey. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.