As New York City continues to progressively reopen and attempts to salvage the second half of summer, its public housing residents face looming evictions and rent crises. The statewide moratorium on evictions, which began to lift on June 20, was recently extended, but only for certain individuals, and back rent will still be due when the moratorium ends on August 20.
“Folks are going to be in a very terrible, terrible financial situation when August comes,” warns Stan Morse, the lead organizer for the Justice For All Coalition, a Queens-based community advocacy group.
The situation may be especially dire for a subset of public housing residents who live under Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) managers. RAD is a federal program that allows local governments to convert public housing units into Section-8 housing by shifting the management of these units over to private companies. It was started in 2012 by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration, and has since expanded under the Trump administration. New York City did its first RAD conversion in 2016, and it currently covers 7,799 units throughout the city, about 50 percent of which are in Brooklyn.
RAD conversions are positioned as win-wins for the New York Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the private companies: NYCHA offloads the costs and responsibilities of repairing and maintaining its public housing units, and the private companies make a business investment. As WNYC explains, “private developers can borrow money and access tax credits that the housing authority cannot. The funds are then used to fix buildings. The private developers make money off management fees and [government paid] housing subsidies.”
For tenants, RAD’s impacts are mixed. The private-sector investment does bring some much needed repairs to crumbling NYCHA infrastructure. At the city’s first and largest RAD Project, the Ocean Bay Apartments in Far Rockaway, $500 million in renovations included a state-of-the-art boiler system, among other things.
But besides these repairs, converting to RAD immediately poses risks to residents, including an increased threat of eviction. “There’s a difference between providing housing and providing a home,” says Kristen Hackett, a housing activist, educator and fellow with the Graduate Center at CUNY. In her eyes, a real home is a place where someone feels stability and safety. “This is not what private landlords are in the business of creating. They’re in the business of creating housing as an asset they can make money off of.”
When a NYCHA unit first converts through RAD, every tenant is required to sign a new lease and submit to a unit inspection. The inspectors audit the tenants and their apartment, aiming to confirm that the unit’s size fits the number of people living there, and that there are no inhabitants who aren’t listed on the lease. If a unit is deemed too large for the inhabitants, they’ll be required to move to a smaller unit. If the inspectors find evidence of unauthorized inhabitants, they’ll be evicted.
These conversion evictions hang dangerously over current NYCHA residents as the city expands RAD. In February, NYCHA agreed to a $1.5 billion deal with private property managers to convert nearly 6,000 additional units into RAD. The involved properties are all over the city, including buildings in Williamsburg, Harlem, and Washington Heights. NYCHA also plans to shift an additional 60,000 total units over to RAD managers by 2028 – a third of its public housing stock.
When a NYCHA resident signs a new RAD lease, they give up some significant legal protections. In 2014, NYCHA settled a class-action lawsuit (Baez v. NYCHA) on behalf of tenants who lived with untreated mold in their apartments. As part of the settlement, a federal judge and an independent federal monitor were tasked with overseeing the removal of mold. But once a unit shifts to RAD management, that oversight ceases. According to the settlement agreement, “the obligations of this agreement shall no longer apply as to those conversions.” It’s not just mold that these tenants lose their protection from, either. The monitoring is also intended to guide cleanup of lead paint, leaks, vermin and more.
After the new property managers come in, new sets of problems tend to arise. Even while the RAD managers make some repairs, residents often complain that their new landlords are negligent to their requests, and are even slower than NYCHA to address them. One Ocean Bay tenant told The City, “[Wavecrest] came in and gave us new ceilings, wood floors, new tubs, toilets and radiators. But while that was nice, we’ve had more heating issues than before.” There’s also less transparency about when or if repairs will happen. NYCHA traditionally updates its tenants online with the status of repairs, while RAD loses that online system.
RAD tenants are also more susceptible to evictions than their NYCHA counterparts. Historically, private landlords, including RAD managers, evict tenants at higher rates. When Wavecrest took over the Ocean Bay Apartments, the evictions rose. Over the course of 26 months from 2017 to 2019, 80 households were evicted, more than double those of any other public-housing development. “That’s the one development [NYCHA] hold[s] up as a model [for RAD]. Already, Ocean Bay has twice as many evictions,” says Stan Morse, of the Justice For All Coalition. Another RAD landlord, L+M Development Managers, carried out evictions at double NYCHA’s historical rate in 2019.
Some have speculated that the higher eviction rates are because RAD leases allow eviction proceedings to begin 14 days after nonpayment, versus the two months NYCHA gives it tenants.
Time will tell whether RAD tenants get evicted at a higher rates than NYCHA residents as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. But a divide between the groups is already emerging. Both RAD and NYCHA managers charge their tenants 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. Now that people may have lost hours or are completely without work due to the pandemic, both groups of tenants can temporarily recertify their current income through NYCHA and have rents adjusted. And yet, NYCHA and RAD tenants haven’t taken advantage of this program at the same rate. Since March 12 when Governor Cuomo began shutting the state down, the housing authority has received 15,145 requests for rent adjustments, according to a NYCHA spokesperson. That is 9 percent of NYCHA’s roughly 170,000 units. But NYCHA has received only 417 requests from its RAD tenants – equal to 5 percent of its 7,799 RAD units.
It’s not clear why NYCHA tenants have requested rent adjustments at almost double the rate of RAD tenants. Possible reasons include differences in communication, either from the property managers or between tenants. “We’re all fighting one cause,” explains Morse. NYCHA tenants have power in a 700,000 member network at their disposal, facing a single opponent. Even though “very few residents know about [the rent adjustment program],” according to Morse, it’s easier to organize NYCHA residents than RAD tenants, who have small, divided networks, and live under landlords who operate with separate rules and policies. “Once you break it up this way, the power is gone,” says Morse.
While the rent adjustment program is helpful, it is narrowly focused. “This is looking specifically at income and your benefits and not considering some of the other financial gymnastics you’ve had during this whole time,” says Kristen Hackett. The rent adjustment only accounts for a person who has lost income, since it reflects what money they are bringing in. But many tenants have also gained expenses from Covid. Pandemics are expensive; they can bring unexpected burdens, like funeral costs or family members needing additional support.
NYCHA and Wavecrest both are developing payment plans to collect past-due rent from tenants. While NYCHA’s plan is still under discussion, Wavecrest has already begun working with its residents. Wavecrest’s Chief Financial Officer Susan Camerata says, “Wavecrest is currently working with residents on an individual basis to arrange payment plans for residents with arrears that allow them to repay over an agreed timeline, including beyond August.” Just how flexible and forgiving these payment plans will be remains to be seen.
Aware that New York’s poorest residents are confronting a financial and evictions crisis, the Cuomo administration has enacted legislation to give them somewhat of a reprieve. Both fall well short of adequately protecting these tenants.
Most well-known is the statewide moratorium on evictions. The moratorium was recently extended until August 20, but those extra months only exist for individuals who are “eligible for unemployment insurance or benefits” or have faced demonstrable “financial hardship” due to COVID-19. The most vulnerable people– like undocumented immigrants, off-the-books workers or some health-compromised individuals— may not qualify.
More recently, Governor Cuomo signed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act into law. Theoretically, Safe Harbor would add protections on top of the moratorium, by preventing landlords from evicting any tenant on the basis of unpaid rent who has “suffered financial hardship during the COVID-19 covered period.” That period extends from March 7, until the undetermined date when all statewide restrictions on gatherings and businesses are lifted. But Safe Harbor doesn’t seem to give additional protections to NYCHA and RAD residents, since those tenants are already eligible for similar rent-payment protection through the income adjustment policy.
Even though both bills protect some tenants from eviction, they still allow landlords to seek financial judgements against tenants over unpaid rent. The Right To Counsel NYC Coalition, a housing rights group, tweeted that Safe Harbor “doesn’t add tenant protections and shouldn’t be called a safe harbor act; it enshrines tenant debt and sets them up for landlord harassment. We need a REAL #EvictionMoratoirum and #CancelRent.”
Rent explicitly isn’t cancelled through the moratorium or Safe Harbor. That means the financial reckonings and hardships they aim to fix are only deferred. “Politicians have continued to treat this as though it’s a short-term crisis,” says Hackett.
In reality, tenants will sit with rent debts and face landlord harassments for months after the date when restrictions lift, far beyond when the pandemic is said to be over.