“They are like vultures in there. They treat people inhumanely. They need to close this indefinitely, lock it down,” said a woman pointing to Brooklyn’s housing court, clearly traumatized by past experiences. She was one of many protesters who arrived at Livingston Street at 9am on Tuesday with a clear message: “Cancel rent.”

The demonstrations—which took place simultaneously in Brooklyn and in the Bronx—happened as New York City’s housing courts started reopening for the first time since the pandemic hit. This means the courts will begin accepting cases against renters, but only that for now. The eviction moratorium still prohibits anyone from being kicked out until August 20, and the recent Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law on June 30, forbids evictions if the renter has had financial issues related to the pandemic.

But tenant unions say the Tenant Safe Harbor Act is vague, and are concerned a loose interpretation of the law could leave renters vulnerable. Furthermore, even though the law prohibits evictions, tenants will owe landlords all the rent not paid during the moratorium months, which could generate mountains of debt.

“Right now, while we are still worried about this pandemic, the state should cancel rent and shouldn’t allow landlords to file any cases against tenants,” said Sarah Guillet, a housing rights organizer from the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. As a Black woman, she also stressed that poor communities, many of them with Black or Brown people, are the most affected by this issue—recent federal statistics show that African-Americans and Latinos are three times more likely to contract the coronavirus.

“We are facing a battle at multiple, different fronts: from the police, from ICE, from housing court, all at the same time,” Guillet told me, many of whom were wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. “For black people, this protest is liberation, it’s a way to dismantle the institutions that are hurting us.” 

Sarah Guillet

One of the protesters who stepped forward to give a speech was Lucia, who told me she had been living undocumented in New York for 26 years. “I’ve always paid my taxes and spent my money in this state that now threatens to throw me on the streets,” she said, in Spanish. As an undocumented immigrant—who got Covid-19—she said she didn’t receive unemployment or any other governmental aid. She was echoed by another man who said: “It’s sort of mind-boggling to imagine these people are gonna get evicted by Zoom right now. It makes no sense.”

Housing rights advocates had predicted that housing courts would be flooded with at least 50,000 evictions upon reopening. “Ironically,” read the letter to New York State’s chief administrative judge, “in the current climate, with unemployment at record levels and with many unable to pay rent for Covid-related reasons, neither housing court judges nor our lawyers will be able to resolve many of these disputes, resulting in evictions, displacement, homelessness, senseless exposure to infection, and more difficulty in containing Covid-19.”

A survey conducted by a group representing 4,000 property owners found that 20 percent of the landlords were fearful of losing their property, and 25 percent of their tenants hadn’t paid rent in April, May and June, the Times reported.

Housing courts partially reopened for mail-in and electronic filings in late June, but hearings and eviction warrants were paused by an administrative judge until July 6.

Josue Pierre, a candidate for City Council, said that the fight to prevent evictions should go hand-in-hand with a push for affordable housing. “The way we get that done is: we have to put pressure on federal, state and city elected officials to ensure that the taxes that we’re paying are invested in building real affordable housing,” he said. “There should be room for you and there should be room for that senior who’s been living there for the past 30 years.”

Josue Pierre

The demonstrators marched on the nearby streets and stopped at Duffield Street—also known as Abolitionist Place. There, they pointed to the big condos that symbolizes Brooklyn’s gentrification process and remembered the story of the house at number 227. The red-brick, 19th-century building was the home of the Truesdells, who are believed to have used the place as a haven for slaves. Last year, the Department of Buildings received an application asking for the place’s demolition.

The first protester to arrive and the last to leave was Scabby, the giant inflatable rat usually used by unions to protest against companies. This Tuesday, Scabby had a flag in his belly with another name: Andrew Cuomo. “The governor is refusing to give the release the tenants need to cancel the rent and prevent evictions,” said Jeremy Bunyaner, representing the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. “And right now, this is how Cuomo looks to the tenant’s movement, to say the least,” said Bunyaner, pointing at the rat.