By Sydney Gold, Marnie Muñoz and Eddie Velazquez
Community organizations in Syracuse are coming together to provide fair housing resources for tenants, as the legal protections that have helped city residents weather the hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic downturn are set to soon expire.
A recent survey conducted by Onondaga County officials noted that tenants owe at least $26 million in rent, based on responses from 1,154 landlords out of the 11,802 surveyed. The reported rent backlog reflects the amount owed on 9,094 apartment units in the county, which according to CNY Vitals — a local community data gathering project — is only approximately 14 percent of the 65,000 renter units registered in Syracuse in 2018.
The staggering figures, fair housing advocates agree, could usher in a “massive eviction crisis,” as the federal and state eviction moratoriums are set to expire on Sept. 30 and May 1 respectively.
“We have seen such a drastic decrease in people who are homeless thanks to the moratoriums,” said Megan Stuart, the executive director at the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Central New York.
Stuart added the virus still poses a risk for the homeless population in Syracuse noting that resident concentration at shelters is still a concern and could be exacerbated if city residents lose their homes en-masse.
“We would like to see protections extended, especially as we get federal dollars out the door so residents can avoid eviction down the road,” concluded Stuart, referencing the $23 million in federal rent relief made available to Onondaga County residents Monday, April 19.
The rent relief application is only available online. Groups like the Syracuse Eviction Defense Coalition, composed of the Syracuse Tenants Union (STU) and the Syracuse chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), are taking on the task for facilitating resources for tenants in need.
The community taskforce, assembled in January, was formed to help build solidarity among tenants in working class neighborhoods, members said.
“We have been trying to learn the climate of each neighborhood and what people are struggling with, like finding people who are struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic,” said Daisy Wiley, a community organizer with PSL and the Eviction Defense Coalition.
With months of neighborhood canvassing around Syracuse’s South Side, Eviction Defense Coalition organizers have centered their efforts around educating residents on the eviction protections available, as well as building relationships among tenants, boosting their message of tenant empowerment.
“Our overarching goal as a coalition is we are trying to build tenant power,” said Stephanie Kenific, an organizer with Syracuse’s PSL chapter and the Eviction Defense Coalition. “Whether that is against evictions or taking action against neglectful slumlords, this is about organizing alongside tenants, and eviction defense is about a wide spectrum of action.”
Part of the organizers’ efforts also include directing tenants toward the appropriate legal measures and services, including the two eviction moratoriums currently in effect in New York.
“We are meeting with tenants who are behind on rent; eviction could be imminent for them, and their landlords are harassing them to make a payment they cannot make,” Kenific said. “There are other people who have horrific living conditions, which their landlord hasn’t bothered to rectify.”
Kenific noted that part of the coalition’s defense strategy starts with educating tenants on available resources, while also assuring them that the group is willing to provide a physical presence and blockade to prevent an eviction.
“First is knocking on doors and educating, but it is also about developing a relationship with them and seeing if we can direct them to legal services, but also not being afraid to take a stand against a slumlord, whether it is by financial means or holding a rally.”
Eviction Defense Coalition organizers have also visited more than 1,000 housing units, including a comprehensive door-to-door campaign on the South Side. A main takeaway from their canvassing efforts include ensuring that tenants are working with accurate, updated information.
“(Most tenants) are aware they have rights, but they need to know how to single them out. There is a vast amount of misinformation out there because some tenants are operating off of the old system,” said STU organizer Palmer Harvey, who noted the organization has made a concerted effort to share the updates made to New York’s Tenant Laws in 2019.
Sydney Gold and Marnie Muñoz are reporting students from the Newhouse School;
Eddie Velazquez is a freelance reporter in Central New York
In the South Side, the agencies listed below are working with Onondaga County to get the word out about the Onondaga County Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Under specific criteria, funds from this program will assist tenants in paying back rent from March 13, 2020 to present.
According to county government guidelines, the program applies to individuals who qualify for unemployment benefits, have seen a reduction in household income or experienced other financial hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, renters will need to reflect a household income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income
Chart provided by the Onondaga County Executive’s Office.
A spokesperson from the Onondaga County executive’s office noted the county will review applications every 30 days, and initial decisions on the first wave of submitted applications will be announced toward the end of May.
Tucker Missionary Baptist Church
Address: 515 Oakwood Ave.
Details: The church will help residents complete the application for Onondaga County rent relief funds. Appointments can be made for five days a week during set hours.
For appointment: Call (315) 944-0640 or email TMBCHelp@gmail.com
The Dunbar Center
Address: 1453 S. State St.
Contact Person: Lauren Townes
Details: Meeting times are flexible, will accommodate evening and weekend schedules and offered seven days a week by appointment only. Townes can also assist with employment.
“Not only are we meeting with everyone that calls, we are meeting on weekends,” said Townes, who runs workforce development at the center. “There’s only a limited pot of money, so when funds run out, that’s it. This is why when someone calls, I will set up an appointment for whatever day or time works for them. I’m here to help pay past bills and help with employment to pay future bills.”
For appointment: Email email@example.com or call (315) 434-5366
Address: 136 Dr. Martin Luther King W. (formerly W. Castle St.)
Contact Person: LaDeena Curry, center coordinator
Details: PEACE is providing renters assistance and support to complete DSS rent relief applications, offers access to computers and WiFi, as well as client referrals to Volunteer Lawyers Project.
“They don’t have to do it on their own,” said LaDeena Curry, coordinator at PEACE’s South Side based center. “I’ll fill it out with them.”
For appointment: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: 2323 S. Salina St.
Details: A Liberty Resources case manager will offer assistance in completing rent relief applications throughout the month of May at two locations, including one in the South Side: 9 to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays at Liberty Resources’ Integrated Health Clinic, 1045 James St., and from 9 to 11 a.m. on Thursdays at Café Sankofa. Calling ahead for an appointment is strongly encouraged. The case manager is also available by phone to answer questions.
For appointment: Call (315) 413-7609
Address: 119 South Ave.
Details: Staff will offer additional assistance to complete forms or provide access to a computer with internet. “[Onondaga County] reached out to us, because we’re right in the middle of the community here on South Avenue,” said program director Desaree Dixie. “There’s about 20 to 30 organizations outside of Jubilee [promoting the county’s Rent Relief Fund]. We’re just one of many helping to get the word out and assist anybody that needs help navigating through that system that they have.”
For appointment: Call (315) 428-0070
Address: 221 S. Warren St., Suite 200
Contact Person: Director of Eviction Defense Program Laura Diane Rolnick, Esq.
Details: Provides legal counsel to tenants throughout Onondaga County. “We have attorneys who are signed up to make calls, assure people of their rights and go over any questions about their leases,” Rolnick said. Clients can speak with an attorney about eviction defense, lease agreements, what to do in the case of an eviction notice, along with any other legal concerns surrounding housing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, VLP has offered a tenant rights call-in clinic to help renters navigate the ever changing legal landscape.