Your Rights as a Tenant During COVID-19—FAQs Answered

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic devastation to millions. In New York City, where the cost of living is one of the highest in the country, many New Yorkers are unable to pay rent and fear potentially being evicted.

On October 7th, 2020, NYLAG held a live Q&A that discussed evictions, rent strikes, rent payments, your rights as a tenant, and more. Read answers to the frequently asked questions from the Q&A session below. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

First, remember that a landlord cannot evict you without first taking you to court. That means before you can lose your home, your landlord must go through the following steps:

  • Your landlord must send you a formal rent demand for payment of any rent due. Landlords must give you at least 14 days to pay the alleged debt before they can proceed to take you to court.
  • If you have not paid the back rent by the date on the rent demand, the landlord may start a nonpayment case against you in Housing Court.
  • Courts reopened to the filing of new cases in late June. After a period of suspension, any case started after March 16, 2020 may proceed. We expect the processing of these cases to move at a slow pace. If you receive a Petition for a Housing Court non-payment case, you now have sixty days to answer as per an Executive Order by the governor. If you’ve received a Housing Court petition recently, you can definitely reach out to us through our hotline.
  • You should not leave your home just because your landlord is threatening you or sending you notices saying they’re going to evict you. Legally only the marshal can evict you.

If you do not have the money to pay back your rent, there are One Shot Deals, rental subsidies, and charitable organizations that can help. Click here to learn more.

Back in June, the legislature passed and Governor Cuomo signed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which is a law that stops tenants who experienced financial hardship during the COVID-19 period from ever being evicted for non-payment of rent that became due during the period from March 7, 2020, until the state of emergency ends. However, landlords can still get money judgments against their tenants for any unpaid rent from that time period. There have been a handful of Housing Court decisions addressing the new statute, but the law is still developing. We also don’t know when the COVID-19 period will end. Different judges will have different understandings of what tenants need to establish to demonstrate that they’ve experienced financial hardship during the COVID-19 period, so we encourage you to save any documents that you may have that would show that you experienced financial hardship during the COVID-19 period.

It should be mentioned that money judgments in New York state are no “cakewalk.” Once a landlord has a money judgment, the landlord can enforce that money judgment by garnishing wages and restraining bank accounts if the amount in the account exceeds $2,850 or $3,600 depending on your specific situation. More information about bank account protections in New York is available here. Money judgments remain collectible for 20 years and can grow because there is a 9% judgment rate of interest in New York. 

In early September 2020, the CDC issued an eviction moratorium that prevents landlords from starting new non-payment cases and also stops landlords from taking any action to move forward with an existing case until December 31, 2020. To benefit from the protections of the moratorium, tenants must first send their landlord a very specific declaration (sworn statement). You can read more about the CDC moratorium and find a copy of the declaration here.

New York’s eviction moratorium now really only applies to people who have existing judgments of eviction or cases commenced in Housing Court before March 16, 2020 in which the tenant defaulted on a stipulation or order and the landlord now has the right to seek a judgment of eviction. To get eviction warrants in those cases, landlords must now file a motion with the Housing Court and tenants in New York City will have an opportunity to connect with lawyers for representation and oppose the motion.

However, very recently Governor Cuomo made the legal landscape even more complicated. On September 29, 2020, Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.66, which extends the eviction moratorium for some tenants until January 1, 2021. Basically, the executive order says that any tenant who would be protected by the Safe Harbor Act, meaning that any tenant who could show that they experienced financial hardship since March 7, would be protected from being evicted until January 1, 2021, even if the judgment of eviction in their Housing Court case was pre-COVID. Because this Executive Order is brand new and the language leaves room for interpretation, it’s not completely clear who is protected.

One possible interpretation is that any tenant who has experienced financial hardship since March 7 can’t be evicted until January 1, 2021 even if they had a pre-COVID eviction judgment. Another possible interpretation is that the executive order would only protect tenants who have experienced financial hardship since March 7 if they are in a nonpayment case, but the executive order wouldn’t protect tenants from eviction in holdover cases. Because the legal landscape is so convoluted, complicated, and unclear at the moment, it’s very important that you seek out a lawyer to represent if you are served with a motion in an existing Housing Court case in which your landlord is seeking a judgment of eviction.

You may have received or may soon receive a motion from your landlord’s attorney to restore the case to the calendar so the landlord can evict you.

If you receive such a motion, you should reach out to our hotline to see if we can represent you. Click here to discuss your specific situation.

Just because you received this motion doesn’t mean you’re being evicted immediately. You do have a right to oppose the motion. And, remember that before you can be evicted, your need to be served with a marshal’s notice of eviction, and the marshal has to come to your home to evict you. That’s why it’s important for you to reach out to a lawyer if you receive one of these motions because there may be things a lawyer can do to delay and maybe even prevent the eviction. You may also be able to take advantage of the CDC moratorium. Everyone’s case is different, so it’s definitely a good idea to speak to a lawyer about your specific situation and what legal options may be available to you.

A rent strike can be a great way for you and your neighbors to band together if you already cannot pay your rent. If you cannot pay rent as an individual and many others in your building are in the same boat, organizing a rent strike can give you leverage against your landlord.

But rent strikes can be risky, especially for undocumented tenants. Before striking you should speak with an experienced tenant organizer. The Right to Counsel Coalition has resources for folks considering rent strikes. You can find them at righttocounselnyc.org, or Google “Rent Strike Toolkit”, or go to bit.ly/RentStrikeNY, or text (don’t call) the words “Rent Strike” or “Huelga De Renta” to 646-542-1920.

Housing Court was open for a limited number of things during the first several months of the pandemic. But on November 4th, a new administrative order of the court restored “normal practices of filing and serving legal papers in New York.” Landlords can file new cases electronically or in person, although a court’s administrative judge may still limit in-person filing for public health reasons. Landlords can also move forward with evictions in cases that were started before COVID-19 in certain situations as described previously. There are also trials happening in a limited number of cases in which both the landlord and tenant have lawyers. Most everything else is still proceeding at a slower pace than before COVID-19. If you already have an attorney in your Housing Court case, we encourage you to reach out to them for more details. If you do not have an attorney and you have an ongoing court case, you will receive a postcard in the mail from the court with your next court date, but it’s hard to say when that might happen.

Remember: You can only be evicted from your home if your landlord starts a case in Housing Court, obtains a judgment of eviction against you, you are served with a marshal’s notice, and the marshal comes to your home to evict you.

Generally speaking, under New York law, only rent-stabilized tenants are entitled to a renewal lease. Even if you don’t have a rent-stabilized lease, it’s possible that you may be a rent-stabilized tenant if you live in a building that was built before 1974 that has six or more units, even if some of those units may not be legal units. If you’re not a rent-stabilized tenant, it’s unlikely that you’re entitled to a renewal lease and at the end of your lease, your landlord could elect not to renew your lease and then commence a holdover action against you in Housing Court after giving you proper notice. The amount of notice you’re legally entitled to is at least 30 days if you’ve lived in there less than a year, at least 60 days for between one year and less than two years, and at least 90 days if you’ve lived there for two years or more. These different notice periods only became law in June 2019 and landlords often mess them up, which may give you certain defenses in a holdover proceeding if a landlord does not serve you with the proper notice prior to commencing its holdover case against you.

If you’ve been evicted after March 16, 2020 and were not served with a marshals notice prior to your eviction, it’s likely that your eviction was illegal and you can start an illegal lockout case in the Housing Court in the borough you lived in to get back into your home (be restored to possession).

If you believe you have been illegally locked out, you can call us. We’ll give you the number at the end. Or you can go to the Housing Court in the borough in which you lived to file an illegal lockout proceeding on your own.

Yes. If you have repairs that are necessary for your apartment and your landlord refuses to address them despite your repeated requests, you can file an HP Action against your landlord in Housing Court to get your landlord to make the repairs. You can do that in person in Housing Court in the borough in which you live or use JustFix, an online application, which is available here.

You can also use JustFix to start an HP Action case if you’re being harassed by your landlord.

Yes, NYLAG would be happy to learn more to see if we can assist you. Call our free NY COVID-19 Legal Resource Hotline at 929-356-9582 and we’ll get back to you. Learn more at nylag.org/hotline.

For information on tenants’ rights and the latest resources for COVID-19, click here

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