The water to the Garcias’ home in Binghamton, New York, was turned off in early February. Despite several court orders, their owner has still not turned it back on.
Angel Garcia and his wife, Deidre, now have to walk their seven children, all under the age of 10, down the street to their aunt’s house to wash up.
“They shouldn’t have to walk down the street to bathe,” Garcia said. “They should be able to do it in their own comfort, in their home.”
The family will still cook at home, but they will need to use bottled water.
Their landlord, Douglas Ritter, said the family intentionally flooded the downstairs neighbor’s apartment, making it uninhabitable. The Garcias denied this and sued Ritter for damages and rent.
The Broome County Supreme Court twice ordered Ritter to restore water service, after the City of Binghamton Code Enforcement Office repeatedly did the same and condemned the property. He did not comply.
The water cut came months after Ritter tried to get a court order to evict the family for nonpayment of rent last September. The Garcias had been a few months behind on rent over the summer, and after paying it back, they failed again when both parents had their work hours reduced due to COVID surges at the school. fall.
But since the family applied for New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), their eviction case has been put on hold indefinitely.
New York’s eviction protections are among the most restrictive
Like renters across the country, tens of thousands of tenants in New York are still waiting to get a share of the federal rent relief distributed to states and municipalities last year. While New York’s eviction moratorium expired Jan. 15, tenant protections remain among the most restrictive in the nation. Anyone who both faces eviction for nonpayment and has a pending application for the state housing assistance program is protected by law from court-ordered eviction.
A similar measure in California protects tenants who are still waiting to be approved for housing assistance from eviction. Lawmakers voted to extend that through the end of June, though the state is no longer accepting new requests for help.
Shorter-term protection exists in Connecticut, where tenants applying for housing assistance can ask the court for a 30-day break on their eviction cases. In Seattle, tenants with school-age children cannot be evicted for nonpayment until the end of the school year.
Such protections continued to frustrate some owners, including Ritter. He said his “right” to a court-ordered eviction was denied while pandemic-related restrictions remained in place.
“I would like the state to return my federal civil rights law and state constitutional due process rights to me,” Ritter said, “through immediate trials and evictions.”
Eviction cases have resumed in New York, but the Garcias are among thousands of tenants still waiting to hear if they will get state housing assistance.
New York has exhausted the roughly $2 billion in federal rent relief it received last year. While the state temporarily stopped accepting applications, a court order last January forced the state to reopen the program.
Tenants can still apply for assistance, but the agency managing the funds told tenants this month that the fund has run out and any applications entered after October 7, 2021 are unlikely to be met anytime soon. That includes the Garcias, who applied in January.
Their landlord, Ritter, said he didn’t turn off the family’s water service because their eviction was halted or because they applied for housing assistance. Still, he has no plans to open the water until the Garcias are gone.
Ritter said he would also not check their housing assistance application for reimbursement of their rent. A landlord’s approval is a requirement for receiving assistance.
Bill Niebel, an eviction defense attorney with Central New York Legal Services, is representing the Garcias in the water utility case, as well as several tenants at other Ritter-owned properties.
Niebel said while some landlords have been patient with the slow rental assistance process, Ritter and others have not.
“Some just say, ‘No, I don’t want to participate. I want that person out,'” Niebel said. “Mr. Ritter, again, is being somewhat extreme in that it appears he is not involved in any PIU applications.”
Tenants in New York can take legal action, but results vary
While Binghamton’s code enforcement office could use its emergency power to restore water, city officials said that in this case, the repairs needed to do so are too extensive to repair. Ritter cut off some of the pipes in the apartment building where the Garcias live and padlocked the door to the plumbing to prevent them from being repaired.
“He effectively kicked them out by turning off the water so they have to leave imminently,” Niebel said.
In New York, coercing or coercing a tenant out of their unit by disrupting essential services is defined as unlawful eviction, a misdemeanor.
Police arrested and charged Ritter with unlawful eviction for doing so in late February. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to a year in prison.
But of the 24 landlords arrested on the charge between January 2020 and June 2021, none were jailed, according to court data released last year. Only three were convicted and fined.
Marie Claire Tran-Leung of the National Housing Law Project in Washington, DC, said legal action against landlords often takes a long time. This is part of the reason why many families choose to leave their homes without reporting the illegal eviction.
Additionally, Tran-Leung said, some households would not trust law enforcement to help them.
“Especially families of color, if you have disabled people, marginalized families, undocumented people, they’re not trying to bolster law enforcement,” Tran-Leung explained.
For this reason, data on extrajudicial evictions – which legal aid lawyers often refer to as informal or “self-help” evictions – are limited, but the practice is a major concern among legal aid lawyers. nationwide legal. Of attorneys surveyed by the National Housing Law Project in July 2020, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal eviction moratorium was in effect, 91% reported cases of illegal eviction in their area.
A follow-up survey saw 35% of legal aid attorneys report an increase in illegal evictions or lockouts since the moratorium was lifted in August 2021, in addition to an increase in court-sanctioned evictions.
Researchers have also begun to examine the effect of the moratorium on self-help evictions at the local level. In a survey of tenants conducted with the state tenants union, researchers from the University of Washington found that the number of low-income tenants experiencing informal evictions of any kind rose from 13.7% before the pandemic to 19.4% during it.
Landlords, according to tenants interviewed, told tenants to leave via text, changed locks and shut down utilities, as in the Garcias’ experience. The researchers, however, did not assess how often these tactics occurred after landlords attempted to evict the tenant in court.
Back in Binghamton, the Garcias search for a place to relocate, but affordable options in the area are scarce.
“It’s all for students, or it’s all $1,500 and up with no utilities included,” Garcia said. “I can’t afford this.”
If they are forced to move, the family may separate and stay with relatives. Garcia said he wanted to avoid that if he could.
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