A ‘canner’ pushes a shopping cart filled with recyclables past the Walt Whitman Houses, Aug. 7, 2023.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The city’s financially struggling public housing authority, facing a half-billion-dollar rent payment shortfall, is turning up the pressure on tenants who have failed to pay, issuing hundreds of eviction notices in recent weeks.
The amount of unpaid rent owed by New York City Housing Authority households has swelled as tens of thousands of tenants who stopped paying during the pandemic did not resume payments when the COVID eviction moratorium ended in January 2022.
By the end of this June, 70,000 of the city’s 151,000 public housing households were behind in their rent, amassing an unprecedented arrears of $509 million. Pre-pandemic, the arrears totaled around $129 million.
Since 2019, NYCHA’s rent collection rate has fallen to around 63%, well below the average 95% collection rate it enforced annually in the pre-COVID era.
Short of enough revenue to cover operating costs, the authority has escalated sending eviction notices to households far behind in their payments.
As of June 30, 1,250 households had received these notices. To date, only 15 households have actually been removed from their apartments, but hundreds more eviction proceedings are now working their way through Housing Court, with many more likely to follow.
Required to Collect
Some of these cases may end with tenants remaining in their apartments, if they agree to repayment schedules to catch up on back rent. But others will surely result in tenants getting kicked out of public housing.
And this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. NYCHA is required to collect all rent that it is owed, under the rules set down by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that provides NYCHA and all public housing authorities in the U.S. with most of their funding. They can’t just write off the unpaid debts.
The numbers at the moment are going in only one direction — up. When the eviction moratorium ended on Jan. 15, 2022, NYCHA had amassed a back rent arrears of around $350 million. By December it was $450 million. It’s now $509 million.
Some tenants paid some of their rent during the moratorium, but if a tenant made no payments during the entire 21-month length of the moratorium from March 2020 through December 2021, they would owe quite a lot.
The average household in arrears owes more than $7,200. Each month the balance owed becomes more and more intimidating, and less likely to be paid off.
“You’re throwing this large number at people and expecting that there’s any way that they can pay it off,” said Iziah Thompson, a housing specialist with the anti-poverty research group Community Service Society. “What does a person do when they are faced with this huge bill? Starting to pay this off, it becomes a daunting task.”
‘A Last Resort’
NYCHA has so far limited its eviction campaign, bringing cases only against households that owe the highest dollar amounts and did not apply for pandemic-related rental reimbursement administered by the state under its Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).
It’s also prioritizing eviction proceedings against residents who have engaged in illegal activity on NYCHA property, or have threatened or perpetrated violence against members of NYCHA’s staff or other public housing tenants.
“As the statistics indicate, we will only initiate eviction proceedings as a last resort,” said authority spokesperson Michael Horgan. “NYCHA’s goal is to keep residents housed, and we regularly work with residents in need to ensure that rent gets paid.”
In some cases, Horgan said, NYCHA has “adjusted rents based on changes of income, family composition and other mitigating factors.” He added that NYCHA management has pressed the state and federal governments to share the financial burden.
For the lawyers and advocates who do battle on behalf of public housing residents, NYCHA’s struggle with rent collection is rooted in one fact: New York treated public housing tenants differently than renters in privately owned homes during the pandemic.
Early in the 2020 pandemic, the federal government agreed to enable a temporary moratorium on evictions by reimbursing landlords via ERAP. The feds handed the money to states to work out how to distribute a benefit aimed at keeping people housed during the ongoing crisis.
Public vs. Private
In New York, Albany legislative leaders and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo crafted a deal that explicitly declared NYCHA and any publicly subsidized tenant could not collect ERAP reimbursement until all eligible private sector tenants had received their reimbursement.
That left NYCHA and its tenants high and dry.
“It’s no surprise that rent arrears for NYCHA residents have ballooned given Albany lawmakers’ refusal to allow these tenants access to ERAP funds that hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers were able to secure,” said Lucy Newman, staff attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society.
NYCHA did manage to convince 33,000 households to apply for the funds, despite knowing they likely would not receive it. And not surprisingly, that’s what happened. All of the federal ERAP money wound up distributed to private sector tenants.
Housing authority leaders had to beg the state to steer more money toward filling the massive and expanding rent hole.
Initially NYCHA sought state reimbursement for all NYCHA households in arrears — not only those who had applied for ERAP funding, but also for thousands more who stopped paying their rent but did not apply for the emergency relief.
They ultimately got much less. In a deal worked out with Gov. Kathy Hochul, the state put $128 million into the current budget only for NYCHA households that applied for ERAP relief, plus another $35 million to be distributed in a manner that has yet to be worked out. That comes to $164 million — less than a third of the current rent arrears.
“The state created this problem,” said Thompson, the policy analyst. “The federal government gave us so much money and I’m still trying to get answers on why they decided to leave out public housing. Obviously their response was inadequate. Now we’re in this situation because of what they did.”
Newman noted that rent pays for about one-third of NYCHA’s operating budget, covering day-to-day repairs and upkeep, so the current loss of a big chunk of that money will ultimately hurt all the tenants living in NYCHA’s aging developments.
“It’s imperative that officials from all levels of government address back rents for residents of public housing to keep our clients safely in their homes and communities,” she said.