More New Yorkers are turning to the city to avoid getting kicked out of their homes.
In the 2005 fiscal year, the City's Human Resources Administration paid $48 million in emergency grants to landlords to prevent eviction for 31,478 households that had fallen into rent arrears.
In the 2013 fiscal year, the number jumped to 43,412, and the city doled out $121.6 million.
"We've never seen this many people in trouble. In my life, I've never seen anything that even approaches this," said Sally Dunford, executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Center, who said her agency serviced more than 1,300 people last year for eviction prevention.
While a job loss or illness is most often to blame for a tenant falling behind, landlords of stabilized units who illegally hike rents "hoping no one would catch them," are aggravating the loss of affordable units, she said.
Because legal increases are permitted after a vacancy, the more churn there is in the market "the more rents go up," she noted. Overcrowding is at epic levels, she added.
While the number of completed evictions -- about 30,000 annually -- has wavered only slightly in the last three years, more New Yorkers are facing the nightmare that is housing court.
The number of eviction cases filed in the city jumped from 119,263 in 2004 to 138,732 in 2013 -- with the number of cases in the city's poorest borough -- The Bronx -- rising from 40,387 to 50,134 during the same time period.
There are more cases than evictions because many people finally come up with money owed after their landlords have filed suit (sometimes, with the help of a one shot grant) or they move voluntarily.
Kim Small, 34, a phlebotomist who makes $34,000 a year, was recently in Bronx housing court trying to stay in her $1,400 Eastchester Heights two-bedroom. She fell behind when she was out of work for four months and then her husband, a truck driver, went out on disability.
They are both employed now, but with three children to support, "we just fell $4,000 into the hole," and can't dig out, she sighed.
Unlike many respondents in Housing Court, Small had no beef with her landlord, or her building, which she said was nicely maintained and "not beat down," as she was starting to feel. She had applied for assistance from the city, she said, but had yet to receive any. (An HRA spokesman confirmed one-shots can take longer for working people to obtain, because "with clients on [public assistance] we generally already have all the information we need.")
Born and raised in NYC, Small and her husband were contemplating hellacious commutes from somewhere far outside the city to try to distance themselves from relentlessly rising rents: Rent on her unregulated apartment had increased almost $200 a month in the last three years, she said. Elected officials are not unaware of the plight of pinched New Yorkers: One bill before the City Council would provide free legal services for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction, who now appear in court without lawyers. Too, The Department of Homeless Services has ramped up a public awareness campaign, "Reach Out Before You're Forced Out of Your Home" and is opening up nine more "Homebase" centers staffed with HRA workers to expedite rent payments and prevent evictions.
"The de Blasio administration is making significant investments to expand and improve homeless prevention programs and is implementing more aggressive funding seeking initiatives with the goal of keeping New Yorkers in their homes and communities and out of shelter," the Mayor's Office said in a statement. The approaches, would help families "with a range of incomes," said the statement.
Despite dramatic interventions and increased outlays to keep people in place, there are about 56,000 homeless New Yorkers (72% of whom are in families with children). Advocates say the affordable housing crisis is sweeping up New Yorkers like a dredge net.
"There's a lot of pressure on older people -- seniors -- who have rent regulated apartments in gentrifying neighborhoods," said Dolores Schaefer, director of development and communication at MFY Legal Services. Tenants in underpriced units often face eviction actions brought on spurious grounds claiming the apartment is not their primary residence, or that their pets, belongings or behaviors are a nuisance, said Schaefer. "It's utter harassment to get the person to give up," and move, she said.
According to the Department of Investigation, 2,054 of the evictions that occurred in 2013 had "APS involvement." (Adult Protective Services, or APS, helps people with mental or physical handicaps, many of whom are elderly.)
A 41-year-old NYPD police officer, who requested anonymity while being interviewed at Bronx Housing Court, likely wouldn't qualify for free legal services even if the Council bill passes. But the married Fordham Hill father of two confessed he was desperately in need of legal help to keep his family housed.
"I was subletting (a co-op) and the owner of the property went into foreclosure," he explained. "Now I'm in a holdover eviction. The bank placed a judgment on me and it shows on my credit report," which has stymied his attempt to rent a new apartment.
That problem was almost academic: After his wife was left disabled from a botched gynecological surgery and his salary became his family's only source of support, he discovered he can't find an apartment he can afford. He. said he will probably join his brother and sister NYPD officers upstate and commute from Rockland, Orange or other far-flung counties.
"I'm pushed out of so many neighborhoods," he said. Landlords don't want to evict tenants, but often moving to do so "is the only way to get them to pay their rent," said Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.
"The city has increased taxes, water and sewer charges -- and that has put a lot of pressure on owners to increase rents, added Mitchell Posilkin, RSA general counsel.