by LESLIE HANNON
(ROCHESTER NY) -- Dozens gathered on Brown Street Thursday afternoon for the third successful day of an eviction blockade aimed at keeping Rochester resident Chris Green and his family in their home.
The City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester (CWTU) has been training people for these blockades for months in anticipation of a wave of evictions following the end of a statewide eviction moratorium on October 1st.
According to the CWTU, there have been at least 59 eviction warrants issued since that date within Monroe County, which was recently declared a "yellow zone" COVID hot spot.
While the eviction blockade for Green has been effective for 3 days so far, there have been many situations in the past few weeks where CWTU was not able to successfully intervene. In an open letter to Mayor Lovely Warren this week, the CWTU detailed several cases in which Rochester residents were evicted from their homes, including a single mother, an elderly woman, and a veteran.
Statewide tenant protections fall short
For months, the CWTU has been warning that the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which was signed by Governor Cuomo on June 30th to replace a more comprehensive eviction moratorium, did not go far enough to protect struggling families.
And so far, that’s what the evidence shows.
In order for a person to use the Safe Harbor Act as a legal defense against eviction, a renter needs to have lost their job as a direct result of a state-mandated COVID-19 shutdown, and they need the paper trail to prove it.
Advocates say there are many situations where the Safe Harbor Act offers no protection to families and individuals who were in fact directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who were looking for work at the time of the local lockdown and thus were unable to find work are not covered, as well as those who may have been just interviewing for positions in affected businesses. Those who do not have the proper paperwork, or who worked for cash are left with no protections as well, advocates say.
Chris Green says he lost his restaurant job due to COVID-19 and was served an eviction notice for non-payment of rent. He has been in court trying to resolve the issue since October.
Green says his landlord has not been receptive to attempts to resolve the situation in a way that allows Green and his two young children stay in the home.
“Every time we tried to offer him money he would walk away, or he won’t respond to our calls or anything," Green says. "When we got into court he just said he didn’t want the money, he wanted us to leave.”
Advocates say the new wave of evictions couldn't come at a worse time. With COVID cases in Monroe County hitting record daily highs, and no new federal assistance on the horizon, it’s nearly impossible for many families to generate the funds it takes to change residence.
While the efforts of the CWTU put a spotlight on the reality of evictions in Monroe County during the COVID-19 pandemic, activists also stress that this is merely one facet of ongoing problems in the city of Rochester. Neglectful landlords, the lack of good-quality affordable housing, and the use of the police as a one-size-fits-all tool for community needs are all longstanding issues housing justice activists have been demanding be addressed.
On Wednesday, the second day of the Brown Street eviction blockade, a marshal arrived with the RPD and physically broke down the door to remove Green and his family from their home. But law enforcement left as members of the tenant union and other allies continued to arrive to the blockade.
The CWTU and its supporters have echoed the calls of Free the People Rochester and the broader Black Lives Matter movement to defund the police, saying the focus should be on finding new housing for those who cannot avoid eviction and securing long-term solutions for those who are able to stay in their homes, instead of forcibly and physically putting people on the street.
In the open letter to Mayor Lovely Warren posted Wednesday, the CWTU and its partners called on the mayor to use an emergency executive order to halt all evictions until legislation that protects both tenants and landlords can be passed.
In a written statement Thursday evening, City Communications Director Justin Roj said the mayor did not have the legal authority to unilaterally enact an eviction moratorium.
But he said the City is taking steps to address the eviction crisis, including distributing funds from the federal CARES Act allocated for tenant and landlord assistance.
As of last week, the City says it had received 3,807 applications for rental assistance, and distributed $750,000 in rental assistance to local tenants.
That averages out to less than $200 per applicant, assuming all applicants are approved. The City says it has allocated $4.2 million in CARES Act funding to direct rent assistance.
The City also said in its statement Thursday that it would work directly with Green through the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development to provide emergency rental assistance or relocation assistance.
Members of the CWTU say that while a remedy for Mr. Green’s housing situation is a good start, it still does not address the ongoing reality for the other families issued eviction notices since October 1st, or those yet to come.
Working in shifts, members of the tenant union and fellow community members are continuing the eviction blockade at Green’s residence until the matter is resolved and will be planning more blockades for families facing eviction before what many predict will be “a very dark winter” for the United States.
LESLIE HANNON is a volunteer reporter for Reclaiming the Narrative. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.