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Postponements from New York are accelerating after a two-year dive

In New York, where landlords typically move to evict more people than in any other city in the country, the housing courts sat in an unusual doze for about two years. But as pandemic restrictions ease, they begin to hum again.

The roughly 2,000 eviction cases filed by landlords each week since March are about 40 percent more than the number filed in mid-January after the state eviction moratorium expired. Tenants have been evicted from their homes in more than 500 cases since February, according to city data, about double the number in all of the 20 months before.

Judges are increasingly asking tenants to appear in court after months of remote interactions. Lawyers representing landlords are annoyed, cases are not going faster, while lawyers defending tenants are not able to keep up with an increasing caseload.

The courts are only a little reminiscent of the hectic, prepandemic past, where rows of besieged tenants tumbled around the block, and crowded hallways offered heady conciliation negotiations.

On a recent Thursday, church chairs in a Brooklyn courtroom sat largely empty, with only a few lawyers mingling in deserted hallways while tenants lined up in a cramped waiting area at what was once one of the city’s busiest courts.

But after the pandemic pushed thousands of people to the brink of losing their homes, the rise in activity raises questions about how well the housing system can continue to avoid a broader crisis of displacement, as rising rents again underscore the city’s challenges of affordability, and whether some of the ugliest features of the city’s long-standing housing crisis, such as the chaotic court system, are poised to return.

Already, a new, crucial protection – a service of free legal representation – is reaching a breaking point, proponents of tenants say.

For years, almost all landlords used lawyers in housing law, while the majority of tenants did not – a balance of power that many felt unfairly left tenants vulnerable to eviction. A new city law was passed in 2017 to provide free lawyers to low-income people, and went into full effect last year.

But several nonprofit organizations that were used by the city to represent tenants struggling with staff shortages and the rise in cases say they are not ready to meet the need. A spokesman for the court said last week that legal groups had refused to take on nearly 1,400 cases since March.

In Brooklyn, for example, Legal Services NYC has had about 25 attorneys handling cases through the program since 2019. But compared to February and March that year, the number of cases in those months this year has doubled to more than 300, the group said.

Several lawyers have resigned, and the group has struggled to hire and train enough new lawyers in the midst of a tight labor market, says Raun J. Rasmussen, the group’s CEO.

“Right now we’re trying really hard to get hold of every single law graduate in May who does not have a job and we’re all competing with each other to do that,” he said.

To deal with it, Legal Services NYC limited its cases last month in Queens and the Bronx and stopped accepting new cases in Brooklyn. The Legal Aid Society, another nonprofit organization, gradually stopped taking new cases in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn last month.

“The fear today is that we will have a lot of tenants going without full representation from a lawyer at a time when we are trying to get out of the pandemic,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney for civil practice at Legal Aid.

The groups have called on the courts to slow down the planning and pace of cases moving through the system.

The spokesman for the courts, Lucian Chalfen, said last week that the number of scheduled meetings in cases decreased by 41 percent compared to the first quarter of 2019, and the number of new cases decreased by 62 percent.

He said a downturn would “accomplish nothing” as new cases would continue to pile up.

“Should legal service providers really suddenly get a revelation and be able to represent all these cases?” he said.

The new city law was intended to help tenants like Damian Winns, a security guard who moved into a one-bedroom apartment in East New York just before the pandemic. At $ 1,200 a month, it was one of the few places he felt he could afford.

But Mr. Winns, 44, struggled to find work during the pandemic and missed out on a few months’ rent last year. He believed a pandemic rent program paid for the lost months.

Instead, Mr. Winns found himself at a hearing in a courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn last week after his landlord moved in to evict him, claiming he still owed the money.

“Where else am I going?” Mr. Winns said in an interview.

Although he may have been eligible for a free lawyer, no one was there to take his case, and a court official told him a legal group should contact before his next court hearing this month – perhaps.

New York City’s housing courts, housed in a handful of buildings and offices across neighborhoods, were set up by the state nearly 50 years ago to enforce housing laws and prevent housing from deteriorating. But the majority of cases have almost always been eviction cases over unpaid rent.

50 condominium judges are appointed by New York’s top administrative judge for five years at a time, based on recommendations from a panel of representatives from, among others, tenant lawyers, the real estate industry and the legal community.

New York City has a reputation for being relatively tenant-friendly: Postponement cases can take months or longer compared to a few days in other parts of the country. But the large number of cases has given rise to criticism that the judicial system is overburdened.

In one year in the mid-1990s, landlords filed more than 316,000 eviction cases. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were more than 171,000 cases. Currently, there are about 75,000 active cases in the system, Mr Chalfen said.

Evacuation cases in the public housing system, which accounted for tens of thousands of cases each year before the pandemic, have largely been suspended. The moratorium on deferral and a massive rent relief program, which has paid out $ 1.8 billion to repay rent debt for more than 140,000 households, have also eased the caseload.

Yet the litigation is still confusing for both landlords and tenants.

At a recent court hearing in Brooklyn, Salvatore Candela, a lawyer representing a landlord of a three-story building in Flatbush, expressed disappointment when a judge set a new hearing date for June to give one of the tenants more time to find A lawyer. .

The landlord, Robinson Cadet, a retired correctional worker, could go another month without rental income after saying he already owed $ 57,000 over the past year and a half.

“It makes me feel like the whole system is against me,” Mr. Cadet.

Meanwhile, Sasha Portilla, a taxi dispatcher, appeared in a courtroom in Queens earlier this month after her landlord said she had exceeded the rental period and moved to evict her. It was her first time in housing court, she said, and she was worried her postponement could happen within days.

For at least 30 minutes, Ms. Portilla, 32, another case unfolded virtually on a television screen while a court official struggled to find remote interpreters to translate between a landlord who spoke Mandarin and a tenant who spoke Spanish.

When it became Ms. Portilla’s turn, she asked a court official how quickly she could be thrown out. A court official said there were still several steps in the process and that a pro bono lawyer in theory should address before her next hearing in May to help her through the process, but to tell a judge if that did not happen. .

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said.

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