Housing group tracks surge in calls from tenants unable to pay rent

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A tenement building in the Lower East Side, June 14, 2019. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

By Ese Olumhense, THE CITY

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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

A tenant advocacy group is reporting a surge of calls to its hotline from New Yorkers who said they were unable to pay the rent this spring as COVID shut down the city economy.

Between March and May, Met Council on Housing relates in a new report, it received more than 400 calls from tenants who said they were unable to pay rent, up from 45 during the same period in 2019.

Those calls accounted for 28% of rings to the hotline, up from just 5% last year. Met Council noted that if applied to the city’s tenants as a whole, that 28% would mean between 1.4 million and 1.6 million people owe back rent.

Met Council also saw a spike in calls during the pandemic from tenants looking to break leases. And complaints about illegal evictions also accounted for a higher share of calls than last year, even as New York imposed an eviction moratorium now set to end Oct. 1. 

“A lot of people just don’t know where they’re gonna live, which is terrifying,” said Andrea Shapiro, director of advocacy at the Met Council.

A large share of those who told the Met Council that they were having trouble paying rent were already rent-burdened before pandemic-related job losses, the report said — meaning that they spent more than 30% of their income on rent. Among low-income tenants, 86% reported being rent burdened. 

Met Council also noted that Latino tenants were most likely to have lost income because of the pandemic.

Shapiro warned that many distressed tenants are putting themselves in additional peril in attempts to stabilize their housing situations — “signing bad deals with landlords about repayment that they can’t possibly repay.”

Some people are abandoning apartments to move in with friends and relatives, which increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19, Shapiro noted.

Others informed Met Council they are leaving New York altogether, she said.

“I know all articles about people leaving the city are about rich people leaving the city,” Shapiro added. “We also have to remember that poor people are leaving the city.”

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