New York Grapples With a Year of Rent Debt
Tenants and housing activists gathered at Maria Hernandez Park for a rally on the streets of Bushwick, asking the city to immediately cancel the rent.
Photo: Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images
Last month, the New York state legislature approved an emergency bill banning evictions for at least two months, preventing thousands of New Yorkers from being booted during the midwinter. ‘a raging pandemic. The law has been a huge relief for tenants who are having difficulty or who are totally unable to pay their rent while awaiting federal assistance. But behind the latest moratorium on state evictions, there is a rent debt crisis. Eviction bans and court warrants have kept many of them in their homes, but eviction proceedings will start again in May and tenants will be forced to either repay their rent or be evicted. Only rent-regulated tenants in the city owe over a billion dollars due to the pandemic, and statewide that number, for all tenants, probably exceeds $ 3 billion.
New Yorkers depleted their savings, borrowed money, and put their health at risk by working in person to make ends meet and pay their rent, but it wasn’t enough. We asked five of them how they were trying to prepare for the rent deadline.
When the pandemic started, I had a full-time job as a home health aide, but I just couldn’t do it. I have a number of health conditions that put me at high risk, such as asthma and circulatory problems. So now I just have my part-time job – I’m a peer mental health specialist – but it’s only 18 hours a week, and it’s just not enough. My roommate, who was a babysitter, lost her job outright and couldn’t pay her share of the rent (it’s $ 1,800 a month), and that’s how things started to take off. I looked for something where I could work from home, but it was not easy. My mother is in hospital with COVID-19 in critical condition – her oxygen is not stable; she’s very lethargic – and I look at this and I say, “Oh my God, I made the best decision for myself because it could easily have been me.” I feel like if COVID doesn’t kill me, stress will.
My spending has changed dramatically since the pandemic hit. My income went from $ 3,400 per month to roughly $ 1,000. It was a huge, huge loss. I was fine, and now it’s horrible. I’m about to be eligible for food stamps – I literally earn $ 3 more than the cut-off – but I’m poor enough that I can’t continue paying my rent and eating. Sometimes I had to fall asleep hungry. And I have medicine, my electric bill, the phone bill, which my part-time job is based on, and other charges. And every day you just have to make the decisions: am I going to eat? Am I going to put myself in a position where I could find myself in the situation my mother is in? Or just say, you know what, we’ll just pay the rent later. And I don’t know what it will look like. I really don’t have a plan. How to save to pay everything back? It’s like taking out a loan that we never expected. I don’t know how I’m going to tell the difference, but you know what, at least I’m alive.
I am at the mercy of God. Before this started, I was cleaning a spa in Manhattan. The whole time I have lived here, almost 24 years, alone and with my four pets, I was able to pay my rent on my own. I did not participate in any municipal program or anything like that. But between November and December  business started to decline. My friend, the owner of the spa, gave me work because she knows my situation, that I have no papers. After November, she opened another spa in Los Angeles and announced that she was going to close this one.
So in March I couldn’t pay rent. And from there I couldn’t even withdraw any money [from the bank]. I was at zero – and couldn’t recover. I was calling everyone and the first thing they say is, “Do you have Social Security?” No. And they say, “You don’t qualify.” So with my friends going through a similar situation, I was going to schools to get free lunches, to collect money to buy food for my pets – I have three cats and a dog. I did not have [anything] for my food, much less for the rent.
I looked for work, but there are people who take advantage of my situation. They don’t want to pay well. They want to pay you $ 5 an hour to be inside their house. Especially if you are going to clean up and someone has been infected, it is not worth it. I called people I worked for before, and no one wanted anyone in them. It’s understandable because of the security, right? With need and despair, we look wherever we can. But nothing.
I have been on a de facto rent strike since April. My roommates and I are concert workers, restaurateurs and artists. And in March, we wondered what to do. We suddenly qualify for unemployment, but it’s going to take weeks or months – it’s different for each of us. And even when we get that, it is not enough. I benefited from the PUA at first and have since fallen to the measly minimum of $ 182 per week. An average month, I earn between $ 500 and just under $ 1,000. I used to make – not a ton more, but I was making at least $ 1,500 or $ 2,000 a month. The total rent for the unit is $ 2,500. Out of necessity and politics, my roommates and I don’t pay rent.
At first my landlord called me several times every day, and once he casually mentioned that his wife was going to school with the Gotti family and wanted to make sure I knew who John Gotti was. It was his vibe. I received a notice from the court recently, but it is considering an eviction for delays rather than an eviction for non-payment; our lease has expired and has not been extended. One thing I actively do is cut down on what’s in my apartment. These are my semi-disorganized daily thoughts and plans, like getting a storage unit, so at least I’ll have my things and relatively high mobility if I get kicked out. I have spiritual items given to me by a dear teacher for which I find a safe place – to have the essential precious things elsewhere and not on the street. I don’t have a good answer to what preparing for the possibility of a deportation looks like to me, other than just mentally and emotionally knowing that there might be a real time of scrambling and finding my shit .
I worked during the pandemic, but had to quit in August because I had to have my hand operated and am worried about my asthma. I had two other people helping pay the rent, but they lost their jobs in March. They only got government help in July, but when they got their money they left, so I found myself paying the rent myself. Just me. $ 1,800 per month. And I support my daughter, her 3 month old baby and my 12 year old stepdaughter. I was counting on my savings. Even when the money wasn’t enough, I saved money for rainy days, for years, around $ 7,000. Right now it’s raining and all that money is gone, and the bills keep coming in and the debt keeps piling up. Now I have nothing.
I used to send $ 1,000 or $ 500 when I could, but I’m still in debt for five months of missed rent. A friend loaned me $ 4000 to pay the rent. Now I’m slowly paying back my friend instead of the landlord, and that’s on top of trying to pay the new rent every month. I can’t go back to work because my job is dangerous for me. I was a 24 hour home aide working full days in a patient’s house. Do you know how difficult it is to go to work with a nebulizer in your backpack? I sometimes get episodes three or four times a day. You don’t know how worried I am. I can not sleep. I think about it all the time: what am I going to do? This is why I have money to give my landlord because I don’t want to go to court for eviction – it gives them less reason to evict me if they see that I am trying to pay them. But I just transferred this debt to someone else.
We hit the rent, trying to get the landlord to be compassionate. I had found a job last December  in a restaurant in Brooklyn – I cook dishes from my country. Then the virus hit and I lost my job. Then I started working around November, right before Cuomo canceled meals inside again, and we all lost our jobs – again. My financial situation is therefore really dire. With the little I get, I buy food. My daughter is working and we’re trying to pay the electricity bill, the internet, whatever we can.
Hopefully the [restaurant] the owner is reopening, but sales have been slow during the pandemic. I hope they will lift this restriction on indoor meals soon. I am not entitled to unemployment or rent relief. There is a lot of bureaucracy [with all the programs]. They should just write off the rent. I hope these politicians feel some compassion for us – whether we are citizens, non-citizens, residents or non-residents, New York City needs rent relief.
* The name has changed for privacy.