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City Council, activists brace for end of moratorium on evictions 

Housing activists and Rochester City Council are weighing their options as a potential wave of evictions looms in mid-August.

A statewide moratorium on evictions for people who haven’t been able to pay their rent because of financial impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic is scheduled to end on August 20. Landlords will then be able to initiate eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent, which they’ve been barred from doing, and cases that had been paused in courts during the shutdown will become active again.

City Council members are bracing for the impact of the moratorium’s end. Recently, they held a meeting to discuss how city government might help prevent evictions.

Council members heard from Mark Muoio, housing program director for the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, who told them that tenants who can prove financial impact from the pandemic will have a legal defense from eviction, though a judge would still likely order them to pay outstanding back rent.

“So, if I lost my job on March 25th, and I didn’t pay April, May, and June, it’s my understanding that a judgment could be ruled against me for back rent, but I could not be kicked out of my house,” Muoio explained during the meeting.

But those cases may require litigation, which means the cash-strapped tenants would need legal representation — something they probably wouldn’t have the money to secure — to mount an effective defense.

City Council is currently discussing a potential “right to counsel” program for tenants facing eviction due to pandemic-related financial hardship, Council member Mary Lupien said during a phone interview.

In May, City Council directed $900,000 in federal CARES Act grant funds to Catholic Family Center for a homeless prevention and rent relief program. Council members are now discussing how the Catholic Family Center could use some of that funding to help provide tenants facing eviction with attorneys through the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.

“So that, when you go to court, and you do owe money, that you can tie right into that money, instead of all the hoops that exist right now,” Lupien said.

City Council will likely hold an August vote on the “right to counsel” proposal, though that would happen just as the state’s eviction moratorium is set to expire. Lupien said that any program approved by Council must be put in place as quickly as possible.

“The money is to help Legal Aid staff up to handle capacity,” Lupien said. “They’ll still need to find lawyers, so this won’t be able to go into effect immediately.”

The moratorium’s end has tenant groups across the state, including the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union, on edge. Allie Dentinger, an organizer with the Rochester tenant union said the group is aware of about 300 eviction cases pending in the courts, all of which had been put on hold during the COVID-19 shutdown. She expects more to be filed.

“COVID has really pulled back the curtain on people’s financial needs,” Dentinger said. “What people don’t realize is, before the pandemic, two out of five people in Rochester were already paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.”

Those numbers come from a recent study by the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute, which also determined 60 percent of minority households in Rochester pay more than 30 percent of income on rent, qualifying as “rent burdened.”

On Thursday evening, the Tenant Union hosted a training session on eviction blockades via Zoom. Blockades are a form of protest where activists form a barrier in front of a residence to block police from removing evicted tenants from the building. Some activists volunteer specifically to be “arrestables”.

Eviction blockades helped Liz McGriff of the Rochester Community Roots Land Trust keep her Cedarwood Terrace house. Her lender had foreclosed on the property and was trying to have her evicted, but because of the blockades — and through negotiations with the bank — she was granted the deed to her house.

“Most of the time (during blockades), the police wouldn’t show up, because they’d see this crowd of 50 people standing there and back down,” McGriff said.

click to enlarge Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union member Pamela Owens. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union member Pamela Owens.
As activists gear up for an August 6 demonstration outside the Hall of Justice in downtown Rochester, several state lawmakers have introduced legislation to provide relief to tenants.

The bills all have majority party Democratic sponsors in both houses of the Legislature. One, sponsored by state Sen. Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, would free tenants from having to pay back rent beginning on March 7 of this year, when the pandemic intensified in New York. Rent would not be due again until 90 days after New York’s ongoing state of emergency is lifted, and rents would be frozen at pre-pandemic levels for five years.

Another bill, sponsored by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Karines Reyes, prohibits evictions during the duration of the COVID-19 emergency and also prevents courts from issuing any judgments against tenants or acting on foreclosures.

A third bill would provide housing vouchers to homeless New Yorkers or those in danger of losing their homes.

Some advocacy and activist groups are also pushing for the federal government to step up and provide aid to the general population. Friday, members of several local groups rallied outside of the Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building, which houses Sen. Charles Schumer’s Rochester office.

They laid down a canvas sheet reading “Fund the People” in red paint and urged Schumer to support the People’s Bailout. A national movement, the People’s Bailout calls on the federal government to provide new, equitable COVID-19 relief, including housing assistance, expanded unemployment assistance, and food assistance, among other measures.

“All of these issues are very interconnected at every level of government,” said Stevie Vargas of Citizen Action NY. “So when we call Senator Chuck Schumer to task, we’re calling Governor Cuomo to task, and our local elected officials as well.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at gino@rochester-citynews.com.

Karen DeWitt, Albany correspondent for WXXI News, contributed to this story.
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