Testimony of LSSA Vice President Ayla Trinidad to NY City Council Regarding Covid-19 & Evictions

Testimony of Ayla Trinidad, LSSA 2320 Vice President, to the New York City Council’s Committee on Housing & Buildings and the Committee on Justice System’s September 17, 2020 joint oversight hearing regarding the potential eviction crisis in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

My name is Ayla Trinidad, I am an Investigator Process Server with Manhattan Legal Services. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today in front of all of you about Covid-19 and the impact the court system has on low-income litigants, and their representatives. As you know at Legal Services our focus is providing free legal services to low-income New Yorkers including those facing eviction in housing court.

My comments today focus primarily on what we are seeing in housing court. Evictions are a Public Health Crisis and a violent act to communities and families. This is even more so in the midst of a pandemic, when displacing someone from their home through either legal or extralegal means tears them out of the safest space available to protect against the virus. Mental health is at risk, along with physical health and safety of New Yorkers. Job loss from the pandemic has caused unemployment to skyrocket, and each month an increasing number of New Yorkers are unable to pay rent. Homeless New Yorkers are 61% more likely to die of Covid-19 than those who are housed; to protect New Yorkers and all of our communities, it is imperative that we keep people in their homes.

Black Lives Matter. Communities of color in New York are bearing the brunt of the virus’s impact: Black and brown New Yorkers are more likely to be essential workers who cannot perform their jobs remotely, more likely to live in overcrowded conditions exposing them to others who may carry the virus, more likely to have to ride crowded means of transportation, which do not allowing for social distancing as recommended by the CDC, and are more likely to be un- or under-insured and face discrimination in healthcare and housing. Although average Covid rates are low across New York, these “averages” mask significantly higher rates in communities of color.

Opening the courts will do nothing but make for more exposure to essential workers and New York’s most vulnerable. New York University’s Furman Center recommends that “[t]he most effective way to prevent existing inequalities from increasing homelessness in communities of color is to keep cases out of housing court.” Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what New York’s housing courts are doing. Eviction cases filed on or before March 16th are now mandated by OCA to move forward, either virtually or in person.

The decision to begin holding in-person trials forces the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers, who are predominantly people of color, along with their advocates, to travel on the busses and subways to antiquated courthouses, putting their lives at risk in order to protect their housing. This is not a choice that anyone should have to make. Our clients are being unnecessarily exposed to the virus, and then must return to their communities where they might unwittingly expose others.

In addition to the risk of exposure caused by forcing people to travel to the courthouses, the physical court buildings are not safe for mass gatherings or prolonged periods of time. The Office of Court Administration has not yet provided full information about the state of their buildings, but what we have learned so far is troubling. One example among many is the HVAC systems. Covid is now being shown to be an airborne disease spread through aerosol transmission. Adequate air circulation and filtration is key to being able to ensure a safer indoor environment. To protect the health of litigants, court staff, and our communities, it is imperative that the Office of Court Administration provide full transparency about the physical condition of its courthouses and work collaboratively with unions, employers, and other stakeholders to ensure safety for all who enter.

We’ve already urged the State Senate to heed the words of the tenant-led Right to Counsel Coalition which demands that “All eviction proceedings, in all venues, should be suspended, period…No one should have to face the stress of becoming homeless or arguing their case, in person or virtually, during a pandemic. Evictions and eviction cases negatively affect the health of tenants. There is no public health reason to proceed with eviction cases, on the contrary moving eviction cases creates a public health crisis. We therefore can’t support eviction cases moving forward at all.”

We are asking the City Council to use their power and influence to keep New Yorkers out of unsafe courts. I urge you to take this stand and protect New Yorkers. Thank you for allowing me to testify before you.