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Olivia Treynor / Senior Staff Photographer

With more tenants unable to pay monthly rent, the eviction rates and likelihood of contracting COVID-19 for housing-insecure residents will rise.

With U.S. unemployment rates at a record high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising market rates in a low-supply market will place low-income West Harlem tenants at heightened risk of eviction and virus contraction, according to housing experts.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses on March 20, unemployment rates soared to record levels, leaving over 369,000 New York State residents out of work. According to an initial analysis by the New York University Furman Center, low-income households were more likely to work in occupations that saw the most layoffs during the COVID shutdown. Without a steady income, renters face the risk of eviction at a dire time. This would give landlords the ability to raise rental rates from units previously leased to low-income residents.

While the state has introduced a bill placing a 90-day rent freeze, housing experts point to the policy as a Band-Aid solution given that residents may still need to pay three months’ rent after the period is up. Emma Baricelli, the president of the Manhattanville Housing Tenant Association, said the bill only delays the issue by deferring rent payments. She claimed the bill will not be effective for the many tenants she represents, who recently lost their jobs and have yet to find a consistent source of income.

According to the New York University Furman Center, New York City renters with an annual income of $30,000 to $50,000 pay a monthly rent of about $1,290. While the federal government has arranged a one-time payment of $1,200 to some tax-paying adults, housing advocates like Larry Wood, a longtime West Harlem tenant advocate and program director at Goddard Riverside Community Center, said the stimulus check will not go a long way.

Federal stimulus money

falls short of West Harlem

monthly rent

2010

’12

’14

’16

’18

$3,000

Due to the

presence of rent-

stabilized housing, the

median price of rent

is much lower than

the median market asking

price in the area.

$2,000

$1,000

The $1,200 federal

relief check is insufficient

in covering even

rent-stabilized prices.

$0

Sources: United States Census Bureau,

StreetEasy, New York University Furman Center

JESSICA LI / STAFF GRAPHICS REPORTER

Federal stimulus money falls short of West Harlem monthly rent

$3,000

Due to the presence of rent-stabilized

housing, the median price of rent

is much lower than the median

market asking price in the area.

$2,000

$1,000

The $1,200 federal relief check

is insufficient in covering even

rent-stabilized prices.

$0

2010

’11

’12

’13

’14

’15

’16

’17

’18

Sources: United States Census Bureau, StreetEasy, New York University Furman Center

JESSICA LI / STAFF GRAPHICS REPORTER

Federal stimulus money falls short

of West Harlem monthly rent

$3,000

Due to the presence of rent-stabilized

housing, the median price of rent

is much lower than the median

market asking price in the area.

$2,000

$1,000

The $1,200 federal relief check

is insufficient in covering even

rent-stabilized prices.

$0

2010

’11

’12

’13

’14

’15

’16

’17

’18

Sources: United States Census Bureau, StreetEasy, New York University Furman Center

JESSICA LI / STAFF GRAPHICS REPORTER

West Harlem housing market rates have risen in recent years due to the effects of Columbia’s gentrification of the area. Housing units in Manhattanville, which has been earmarked as the location of Columbia’s expansion, have long seen this narrative play out: The University’s expansion has influenced landlords to push out rent-stabilized tenants to profit from the rising market rates in the community.

In 2009, the $6.3 billion, 17-acre Manhattanville expansion into West Harlem, aimed at alleviating the space shortage on campus, broke ground. This expansion displaced residents from 115 low-income units. The New York City Department of City Planning released an Environmental Impact Statement in 2007 that anticipated a high volume of University-affiliated residents would relocate to the area by 2030 due to the expansion, prompting up to 1,318 units to be “at-risk” of facing upward rent pressure.

Rent stabilization is one of New York City’s most ambitious affordable housing programs, and about half of all of the city’s apartments are rent-stabilized. Tenants of these units are protected from rent increases and baseless evictions and maintain other rights as well. But through vacancy decontrol, landlords are able to deregulate the rent of an apartment and remove its rent-stabilization status once the tenant no longer has a claim to the unit.

As a result, landlords are incentivized to evict residents in rent-stabilized apartments who might not be able to pay rent in the coming months. Many of those tenants are already rent-burdened, meaning they spend over 30 percent of their income on housing, Wood said.

“Landlords are waiting to pounce; they’re salivating right now. This situation is ideal for landlords because they aren’t getting much money from these rent-stabilized apartments anyway,” Hanzal said. “They have an opportunity to sit by, lose some months’ rent, pay some legal fees to get people out, pay maybe $5,000 to renovate these long-neglected apartments, and drastically raise the rent.”

In addition, the Senate bill provides landlords with a tax credit for freezing rent, said Manhattanville Tenants Association President David Hanzal. Hanzal’s association represents the tenants of 3143 Broadway, 3147 Broadway, and 3149 Broadway, as well as three other buildings in Morningside Heights. The organization is separate from Baricelli’s association, which is recognized by the New York City Housing Authority.

“Landlords will get a discount on property taxes [through the Senate bill], federal funding can come in and supplement the revenue loss, and they will still get rent from tenants for the months during the freeze,” Hanzal said. “Meanwhile, nothing from this bill benefits renters.”

Wood also predicted that low-income renters who are evicted for not paying rent will be in a more vulnerable position of contracting COVID-19 as they scramble to find housing accommodations amid crowded shelters where social distancing is not possible.

Low-income neighborhoods already face heightened risks due to community members’ pre-existing health conditions and lack of accessible health care. But with more tenants unable to pay monthly rent, the eviction rates and likelihood of contracting COVID-19 for housing-insecure residents will rise.

“For Black and Latino tenants, the communities you’re looking at have poorer housing conditions with overcrowding,” Wood said. “Trying to pick up and move during a situation like this cannot be good. It's not conducive for staying healthy.”

While Cuomo called for a moratorium on evictions, meaning renters cannot be evicted at this time, Wood said the state should also consider rent-forgiveness and subsidy programs to alleviate the burden on renters.

“It’ll be much more cost-effective and humane to help them stay where they are than to have them evicted and then homeless,” Wood said. “It’s so much more expensive if you have to deal with an emergency crisis if they have to turn to the shelter system.”

News Editor Stephanie Lai can be contacted at stephanie.lai@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephaniealai.

Manhattanville recession landlords affordable housing eviction
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