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On the Brink of Homelessness, Bronx Tenants Struggle to Stay in Their Homes

Alfred Hernandez has been living in the same Bronx apartment for the past eight years. He sometimes found it difficult to pay rent on time, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it close to impossible. 

 

While working as a custodian for a homeless shelter, he caught the virus four times. Along with multiple flare-ups of painful arthritis in his knees, Hernandez couldn’t keep up with the work. He lost his job in July 2021. 

 

Then one humid day, he came home to find an eviction notice on his front door. 

 

“It made me feel so bad,” he said. “I felt like such a deadbeat.” 

 

Donna Williams had never missed a payment in her 25 years living in the Bronx – until the pandemic. For her, it was the rising cost of living that made it difficult to consistently pay her rent. In October, she too found a dreaded eviction notice on her door.

 

“If I had to pay that lump sum, I would be homeless,” she said. “I would have nowhere to go.” 

 

Hernandez and Williams are not alone. 

 

Roughly one million New Yorkers can’t pay their rent. After a two-year hiatus due to the eviction moratorium, eviction cases are steadily creeping back up. Legal removals and new case filings both continue to mount, trends likely to exacerbate an already strained housing market that have stressed tenants with skyrocketing rents. Various local and federal rent relief programs like the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the New York State Emergency Rental Assistance Program were set up, but help won’t come close to the state’s estimated need. While no neighborhood has remained immune, the brunt of the affordability crisis is felt in the Bronx. 

 

According to the Right to Counsel, a tenant-led housing rights coalition, eight of the ten zip codes with the highest rates of eviction are in the Bronx, where a majority of tenants identify as Latino and Black. While the numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, the Bronx now accounts for a third of all new eviction filings. According to the public eviction filing database, almost 64,000 evictions were filed in the Bronx before the pandemic. Those numbers fell to 15,000 in 2021, but have already reached 33,000 in 2022. 

 

Western Bronx, where Hernandez and Williams live, is among the most affected.

 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, low-income New Yorkers have had to contend with deeper, longer-lasting crises like higher rates of unemployment, lesser capacity for remote work, and an increased risk of infection. And throughout it, the Bronx has remained the poorest county in the state. As inflation hit a 40-year high this summer, climbing to 9.1 percent, vulnerable Bronxinites were confronted with a difficult choice: buy food or pay rent. 

 

Aaron Carr is the founder and executive director of Housing Rights Initiative, a non-profit watchdog group working to protect tenants rights and affordable housing. The main problem for tenants in the Bronx, he said, is having to spend a big chunk of their paychecks on rent. 

 

“The Bronx is still one of the lowest income pockets in America,” he said. “What you’ll find there is incredibly high rent burden.”

 

According to initial findings from the 2021 Housing and Vacancy Survey, the median rent for a unit — $1,200 — would require a salary of at least $48,000. Yet median household income in the Bronx for the same year was just $43,000

 

This spring, Williams’ rent went up by about $100. Although some might consider the increase slight, she said, coupled with pricier groceries, electricity, and medical bills, it was too much. Even before the increase, she was spending most of her income on rent. 

 

“It’s really overwhelming for me,” Williams said. 

 

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While fighting to stay in their homes, tenants are also confronted with a slew of maintenance and safety issues. The borough has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, many of its buildings constructed almost a century ago. 

 

Hernandez said that he waited weeks before management attended to a pipe leak that damaged his bathroom and kitchen. Mold from the leaks has been eating the building from the inside, he added. One of his neighbors even fell through her floor. 

 

“The wood is rotten,” he said. “The building is 100 years old and there’s been water damage on top of that. They need to do something because we’re going to collapse. They just patch things up so you can’t see them, but [the problems] are still there… They just want the money.”

 

Runa Rajagopal is the managing director of the Civil Action Practice at the Bronx Defenders. A failure to properly maintain and provide safe living conditions, she said, oftentimes isn’t a priority for those that manage affordable units. Instead, tenants living in cheaper apartments are generally expected to be grateful. 

 

“The more affordable the apartment is, the less stable and safe the apartment is,” she said. 

 

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Meanwhile, despite the steady increase in new eviction filings, government rental assistance is dwindling. 

 

Last month, the U.S. Department of Treasury sent an additional $99.4 million to help cover New York renters’ pandemic arrears. As of late October, the agency that oversees the rental relief program — the NYC Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance — paid a total of $2.6 billion to landlords. Yet, of 172,000 out of the roughly 376,000 received applications remain unpaid leaving tenants in financial and legal limbo. 

 

Williams has already applied for the Emergency Rent Assistance Program (ERAP), aid sent directly from the federal government. If her application is approved, she could receive help for up to a year of rental arrears accrued since the beginning of the pandemic. Until the decision comes, the eviction lawsuit against her is put on hold. 

 

It’s unclear how long the government will continue to send aid or how long that aid will last. 

 

Rajagopal said that the eviction crisis is just a reflection of the broader issue of affordability in the city. While there isn’t a straightforward solution, she said, there should be a way for tenants to access aid without having to go through the courts. New programs that would tackle the issue at the root would also be necessary, she added. 

 

“One-time assistance doesn’t allow for ongoing affordability,” Rajagopal said. “No matter how much one-time assistance [tenants] get, that won’t allow them to stay long-term.” 

 

Hernandez already had some of his arrears covered through ERAP and has in the past been approved for One Shot Deal — the city’s emergency assistance program. He’s also trying to receive disability aid that would help while he weathers through yet another arthritis flare-up. But what would really help, he said, is steady work. 

 

“I need to be on disability at least until I get better,” he said. “It’s not going to be permanent. I like work. I’ve worked in a lot of senior buildings in the past and I noticed that when [people] stopped working they started dying.”

About the author(s)

Jana Cholakovska is a Columbia University Stabile fellow reporting on climate, labor, and housing.