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Many New York renters are choosing to leave without reporting illegal evictions

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Some federal aid to help renters during the pandemic hasn't arrived yet. In New York state, anyone with a pending application is protected from court-ordered eviction, but some landlords try to force tenants out illegally. Here's Jillian Forstadt of member station WSKG in upstate New York.

JILLIAN FORSTADT, BYLINE: The water at the Garcias' Binghamton home was shut off in early February. Despite multiple court orders, their landlord still hasn't turned it back on. The family has seven kids, all under age 10. Angel Garcia and his wife Deirdre now walk them down the street to their aunt's house to watch.

ANGEL GARCIA: They shouldn't have to walk down the street to bathe. They should be able to do it in their own comfort, in their house.

FORSTADT: The Garcias still cook at home, but they use bottled water. Their landlord, Douglas Ritter, says the family was intentionally flooding the downstairs neighbors' apartment. The Garcias deny that. Ritter tried to get a court order to evict the family last fall. They fell a few months behind on rent when both parents saw their work hours cut because of COVID surges. But since the family applied for emergency rental assistance, their eviction case was paused. The state's ongoing protections for tenants frustrate landlords like Ritter. He says his right to evict is being denied.

DOUGLAS RITTER: I would like the state to give me back my federal civil rights law and state constitutional-guaranteed rights of due process by immediate trials and evictions.

FORSTADT: Eviction cases have resumed in New York, but many are paused as tens of thousands of tenants wait to be approved for rental assistance. It's a slow process, especially since the state ran out of money for rent relief months ago. New tenants can still apply for it, but the agency administering the funds says any request after early October 2021 won't get fulfilled any time soon. The Garcias applied in January. And Ritter refuses to verify their application for the program, also known as ERAP. That landlord sign-off is required to receive aid. Bill Niebel represents the Garcias. The legal aid attorney says some landlords are patient with the rental assistance process; some are not.

BILL NIEBEL: There are some who just say, no, I don't want to participate; I want this person out. Mr. Ritter, again, is somewhat extreme in that it seems like he's not participating with any ERAP applications.

FORSTADT: Police arrested and charged Ritter with unlawful eviction for the water issue in February. In New York, that can result in up to a year in jail. But of the 24 landlords in New York arrested on that charge between January 2020 and June 2021, none of them received jail time. Only three were convicted and fined. Marie Claire Tran-Leung of the National Housing Law Project in D.C. says legal action against landlords like this often takes a long time. It's partially why many families choose to leave without reporting the illegal eviction. Plus, Tran-Leung says, some don't trust law enforcement to help.

MARIE CLAIRE TRAN-LEUNG: Particularly families of color, if you have persons with disabilities, marginalized families, people who are undocumented - they're not trying to bring in more law enforcement.

FORSTADT: Tran-Leung's organization surveyed legal aid attorneys nationwide last fall. More than a third reported an increase in illegal evictions or lockouts since the federal eviction moratorium was lifted in August. Back in Binghamton, the Garcias want to move, but it's hard.

GARCIA: Everything's for college students, or everything is 1,500 and above with no utilities included. And I can't afford that.

FORSTADT: The family will continue to look for places to move.

For NPR News, I'm Jillian Forstadt in Binghamton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jillian Forstadt