Evictions Down Sharply Due to Prevention Efforts

Evictions Down Sharply Due to Prevention Efforts

March 2016

Almost 5,000 fewer families were evicted last year in New York City than in 2014, according to city statistics released Feb. 29. The number of households ousted by city marshals fell by 18 percent, from 26,857 to 21,988, as a result of aggressive eviction prevention efforts by the de Blasio administration. These include increased rent assistance and a tenfold increase in free legal services for low-income tenants, targeted to neighborhoods that need it most.

Evictions increased every year from 2005 to 2013, when they reached a peak of 28,849. In a Housing Court system where more than 90 percent of tenants are not represented by attorneys, the city has spent more than $45 million in the last two years providing legal services for them.

“The city’s free legal services for tenants have already served 10,000 households,” Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks said in a statement released by the mayor’s office. 

Housing Court Answers, the major voice in reforming Housing Court, praised the administration’s efforts. “Mayor de Blasio’s approach and the excellent work by Steve Banks at HRA, the city agency running eviction prevention programs, shows that more lawyers for tenants facing eviction, smoother procedures for emergency rent arrears assistance, and serious efforts to help tenants in trouble are paying off,” it said.

“Today, the single leading cause of homelessness is not drug addiction or mental illness—it’s eviction,” City Councilmember (D-Manhattan) Mark Levine said in a statement Mar. 3. Evictions also often eliminate affordable apartments. As loopholes in the state’s rent-regulation laws allow large increases on vacant apartments, when a rent-stabilized household is evicted, that apartment can be permanently lost as an affordable unit—especially in gentrifying neighborhoods where market rents are rising. The average of 25,000 evictions a year over the last decade may have caused the loss of some 100,000 affordable apartments.

The city has also created a Tenant Support Unit to go door-to-door in what the mayor described as “fast-changing neighborhoods” in a Feb. 29 statement. That unit has referred more than 500 tenants to legal services so far, the mayor’s office said.

Not everyone lauded the drop in evictions. Mitchell Posilkin, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association, the landlord lobby, said the reduction in evictions was partially because the court system has lost employees to budget cuts, so it can take weeks longer to get warrants for evictions when landlords obtain a judgment. Fewer evictions are “only a movement in the right direction if it means that owners are receiving the rent they need to operate their buildings,” Posilkin told the New York Times on February 29. 

Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers, was more encouraged. “‘It was: “Whoa! There’s a change that’s noteworthy,”’ she told the  Times. “We’re definitely seeing more lawyers in Housing Court.”

The lower rent increases allowed by the de Blasio administration’s Rent Guidelines Board also helped. In contrast to the increases allowed under the the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations—as high as 8.5 percent with an $85 minimum for a two-year lease renewal in the recession year of 2008-09—the RGB increases for 2014-15 were one percent for one year and 2.75 percent for two years, and it froze rents for one-year leases for 2015-16. There are thousands of low-income families who are already spending more than 70 percent of their income on rent, and even small rent increases can force them out of their homes.

While the reduced number is a positive step, 21,988 evictions are still a disaster and a tragedy, both for the families involved and for its contribution to the city’s homeless and affordability crises. Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond and others have noted that eviction causes lifelong developmental and psychological problems for children; a 2011 United Nations report found that the effects of eviction were “comparable to war.” Elderly tenants face increased mortality rates when displaced from their longtime homes and communities. 

The only say to stop the flood of evictions is to guarantee a universal right to a lawyer in eviction cases, and to close the loopholes in state laws that give owners huge economic incentives to displace tenants.