Homeless for the holidays

Posted 12/20/22

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Rising housing costs place a heavy burden on Sullivan County residents. But those who can pay those costs, high as they are, are they lucky ones.

Those who …

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Homeless for the holidays


SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Rising housing costs place a heavy burden on Sullivan County residents. But those who can pay those costs, high as they are, are they lucky ones.

Those who can’t—because of their finances, their health or other factors—face eviction, housing insecurity and homelessness. It’s a reality confronted by many Sullivan County residents, one that hasn’t gotten any better over the past year.

Housing insecurity

Everyone’s story of eviction is different. Some of them look like Jeff’s.

Jeff has rented out an apartment in Eldred for the past seven years, living there with his daughter. His problems started in 2021. A bout of COVID in combination with underlying conditions put him in the hospital, and while he recovered from that illness and from a separate hospitalization the following year, he couldn’t recertify for his disability payments, his only source of income.

“Once I recovered, I recertified for my disability payments, but in the interim fell behind on all my bills including my rent,” Jeff says in an affidavit submitted during his eviction proceedings. (Information about Jeff’s case was provided to the River Reporter by Paula Campbell, a nine-year guardian in civil housing court who represented Jeff during the proceedings.)

New Jersey real estate agent Janusz Minkina bought the property in 2022, together with two other partners. Minkina doesn’t mind helping tenants, he says, but only for a few months, not indefinitely. He started eviction proceedings, and a Highland town judge signed an eviction warrant on July 18, 2022.

Jeff made an effort to begin paying his rent. He provided documents to the court as evidence of four monthly payments made from August to November, and filed an application with New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to pay his arrears.

An ERAP application should protect tenants from eviction. According to information from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), if a landlord starts a court proceeding for eviction while an ERAP application is pending, the tenant can show the court the application to put those proceedings on hold.

Jeff received confirmation of his ERAP application on October 23; Minkina’s lawyer disputed the application in an email to the court, and told the court that even if it is pending, it is untimely.

Workers sent by the landlord and deputies with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Civil Division showed up at Jeff’s apartment on November 22 to evict him. The workers “threw everything he and his daughter had out into the parking lot of the building,” says Campbell, who was present during the eviction proceedings.

Jeff and his daughter are now staying temporarily with a friend, he said.

In Minkina’s view, it’s a question of timing. Other residents in the same building are behind on their rent, but they got their applications in on time for the protections to apply, he says; the system let him kick Jeff out, where it did not do so for the other tenants.

For his part, Jeff says that no help was given as he tried to navigate that system: “Since I have a learning disability, it made it impossible for me to fully comprehend the consequences of what was happening or avail myself of assistance.”

Tenants’ rights and wrongs

Jeff’s story of eviction is just one among the many that are playing out across Sullivan County.

“The office of human rights is receiving a lot of complaints and concerns regarding housing,” said Adrienne Jensen, Sullivan County’s Human Rights Commission executive director, talking to the Sullivan County Legislature on December 8.

Sullivan County Undersheriff Eric Chaboty told the River Reporter that the civil division of the sheriff’s office is busy with evictions—in some cases, six to seven a day.

Much of the current wave of evictions is a remaining ripple from the pandemic. Some people, like Jeff, fell behind on their rent because of the COVID-related hardships they suffered. Others are suffering as a byproduct of Sullivan County’s red-hot real estate market.

During COVID, everything went through the roof, says Martin Colavito.

Colavito organizes the community cupboard program with the Cornell Cooperative Extension. In driving around the county—Colavito delivers food to around 500 people a week—he’s encountered a landscape of people living in fear of eviction: “I see that everywhere.”

Residents of numerous apartment complexes in Sullivan County have experienced pressures to leave, says Colavito: they’ve been given unofficial notes saying they’re evicted, or signed orders of eviction that he says are sketchy at best. Those apartments can then get renovated, and landlords can rent them back out again at a higher rate.

“People are living in fear of this stuff… there isn’t a whole lot of tenant rights in Sullivan,” Colavito says.

Assistance and resistance

Tenants received a lot of help throughout the pandemic, at the state and the federal levels. Programs like ERAP offered assistance with paying their rents, and a series of eviction moratoriums kept people in their homes.

The last of the eviction moratoriums in New York expired on January 14. In the 12 months since then, the legal system has begun to clear out a backlog of people who couldn’t get evicted during the pandemic.

People are under the impression that evictions will take between six months and two years to process, says Chaboty: it was backed up before, and people think it’s still backed up, but evictions are now moving at a rapid pace.

ERAP is still accepting new applications, but its original funding sources are falling away. As of November 22, OTDA only has enough funding to review and process applications submitted as of September 30.

The ERAP program has “kind of waned,”

Jensen told the legislature on December 8. And even the benefits currently on the table aren’t enough to cover rising rates: she’s seeing clients whose benefits are going up, but not by enough to match increases in their rents.

“For instance, I have a client who got a $35 increase, but the rent increase was $85… come the winter months, especially with seniors, you’re going to see a lot of people who [are told], ‘If you know that you’re not going to be able to afford this, then start looking for a place,’” Jensen predicted.

The ERAP process moves slowly even for tenants who can access the program. Minkina says that he hasn’t yet received payment for the tenants in his building protected by the program.

Here to help

Tenants at risk of eviction do have some sources of assistance available.

Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) provides free legal assistance to low-income clients on a range of issues, including housing, domestic violence and elder law.

LSHV can intervene, but tenants often wait until the last minute to reach out, says Colavito: “You have to be proactive—you just cannot wait, and I see that all the time.”

“No matter what, you gotta start the pushback of these highly questionable evictions happening all over the County involving low income tenants,” says Campbell. She’s working with Jeff to get a legal review of the way his eviction was processed through the courts.

“These are the people we need to stabilize,” says Colavito. “Because that’s what is going to stabilize our community.”

eviction, homeless, housing, affordable housing


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