New York Tenants have long relied on the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to avoid being evicted for not being caught up with on rent, but a case in Onondaga County Supreme Court is raising questions about the discretion judges have over the enforcement of tenants’ protections.
For Lee, a single mother of three living in Syracuse’s South Side, a delicate relationship with her landlord and a judge’s decision could mean her family will have to look for a new home in the next two weeks.
The ERAP program, started by the state’s Office of Temporary Disability Assistance in June 2021 as pandemic-related relief, allows tenants who earn less than 80% of the area’s median income to apply for financial assistance that would cover up to 12 months of rental arrears. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office estimated in April that the program had provided $3 billion in housing and utility support for 237,500 struggling households across the state.
In Syracuse City Court, filing an ERAP application has become a significant defense in non-payment cases, which make up the bulk of eviction filings in Syracuse and upstate New York at large. It allows tenants to remain in their homes while there is an ERAP application pending and requires both tenants and landlords to apply.
Lee is suing City Court Judge Vanessa Bogan in Onondaga County Supreme Court for granting an order of eviction against her in May despite having a partially approved ERAP application. The eviction order was dated for Friday, but State Supreme Court Judge Danielle Fogel, presiding over the suit, granted a 14-day freeze on the eviction warrant. Lee’s landlord Shelyta Davis is also named as a defendant in the suit.
A decision is expected by July 14 and would provide insight into how judges interpret ERAP tenant protections and if, how, and when those protections can be overruled.
‘I haven’t been able to eat, sleep, or focus at work’
Lee learned last Tuesday she would be evicted, when officers with the city marshal were at her door. She said she has not renewed a lease since last August and wants to remain in the house, adding that she wants stability for her family and doesn’t have the means to find a new home on a short timeline.
She spoke with Central Current under the condition of being able to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation and the potential legal ramifications of her family being displaced.
“I don’t have another way,” Lee said. “I don’t want to move. I have nowhere to go. I’m just going to be homeless with my kids.”
Lee grew up on the South Side, where evictions are rampant. Just this year, there have been 634 eviction filings in ZIP codes that make up the South Side, the highest for any neighborhood in the city, according to data from the state court system.
“I have no resources. I’m just one person trying to be a mom and do the right thing,” she said, referencing her ERAP application. “I am trying to show my children that I am a single Black woman making it work in the environment that I grew up in. I am trying to be responsible and do the right thing, but my world is changing here and I don’t know how I can protect my kids from that.”
A vast number of dilapidated properties also are concentrated in the South Side. The city’s housing study, unveiled in May, shows that more than 60% of the homes in the neighborhood are in visible decline and that only a small fraction of the properties show signs of active maintenance.
Lee’s house currently lacks proper heating in at least one bedroom. Records from the city’s open data portal show the property has one current code violation regarding air duct maintenance.
“My son’s room is cold,” she said. “No heat is going through that side. No one came out to fix that all winter.”
Lee said her neighborhood is changing. In the three years she has lived on Cortland Avenue, she has heard of neighbors being evicted.
“It’s heartbreaking because it’s like a legacy,” she said. “Does it even matter that I am doing the right thing?”
Davis filed for eviction in February in city court. Davis had initially given Lee a notice last October terminating her tenancy at the house on Cortland Avenue effective Jan. 1.
Lee sought to remedy her situation by filing an ERAP request in December to pay for about nine months of rent arrears. She fell behind as she was in between jobs and couldn’t afford to make rent payments, Lee said. Last month, Lee started a new job at the Veterans Affairs Syracuse Health Center, hoping to find some stability.
Her ERAP application was conditionally approved by OTDA, pending a filing from Davis, who has declined to fill out the ERAP forms, court records show.
In a sworn affidavit from April, Davis claimed she did not know about the ERAP application until it was discussed at a March court hearing. She added she wished to remove Lee and her family from the property regardless, noting she’d forgo any funds that could come from ERAP both pertaining to this case and in the future. Court records show Davis is not seeking any repayment of owed rent, and instead just wants control of the property.
Davis’ son Jeffrey Jones, who Lee said manages the property and has appeared in court representing Davis, did not respond to requests for comment and clarification from Central Current.
At a subsequent May hearing, Bogan granted an eviction warrant, questioning whether the ERAP statute still applied to this case since the landlord was waiving off rental arrears and any potential financial relief from the state. Bogan added the eviction order could be potentially waived if Davis accepted ERAP funds.
Ramifications of the case
Lee and her attorney Rob Rubenstein filed the suit in County Supreme Court in early June, alleging that the judge cannot waive the tenant protections provided by ERAP. The suit also calls for a halt to the eviction order.
Some legal experts agreed with Rubenstein’s argument.
Andrew Scherer, the director of the Housing Rights Clinic at New York Law School, said OTDA was directed by the State Legislature to protect tenants from being evicted while they seek financial assistance to pay owed rent. ERAP, Schered noted, does not provide any exceptions to said tenant protections.
“I don’t think a judge in landlord-tenant proceedings has the authority to simply ignore what is a pretty clear statutory mandate,” Scherer said. “Whatever she thinks about the statute and its utility in a situation like this where the landlord refuses to accept the rent, the statute says what it says.”
Jocelyn Richards, a housing organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Union, said Bogan’s ruling places tenants in limbo. The onus of seeking protections against eviction in court ultimately falls on tenants, Richards said, which requires baseline knowledge of resources available to stave off eviction.
“Tenants typically don’t know all of their rights, and the city and state rely on advocacy groups to inform tenants of their rights,” she said. “If the tenant protections that do exist are not upheld, then we’re essentially putting tenants in a situation where they lose automatically.”
For Richards, Bogan’s ruling in city court reflects a power imbalance between landlords and renters.
“As a society, we have decided that we value a landlord’s right to get their property and maintain it more than ensuring that people are housed,” she said. “That’s just the basic norm that makes the whole system function.”
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