Livia Fernandez used to commute every day from her one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx to an Ecuadorean restaurant in Queens, where she worked as a cook and earned $700 a week. But when the pandemic hit New York City last year, the restaurant shut down, and she lost her job.
Ms. Fernandez got Covid-19 in March 2020, and ever since she has felt weak and unable to work. Her two young daughters were also infected. For 20 months, Ms. Fernandez has not paid her $1,400 rent — she owes more than $28,000.
Her landlord has yet to demand payment, instead hoping that Ms. Fernandez would qualify for a state pandemic relief program. But with the rent relief program now nearly out of money, Ms. Fernandez knows her housing situation is precarious.
“Where will I go with two daughters?” Ms. Fernandez said. “I can’t live in the streets. ”
The pandemic has left millions of people across the country jobless and on the brink of losing their homes. But few places better illustrate the escalating housing crisis than the Bronx, where working-class residents have long struggled to afford the city’s rising cost of living. Before the pandemic, more than one-third of households in the Bronx spent at least half their income on rent.
More than 26,000 renters in the borough have been sued by their landlord since the pandemic began, the highest concentration of eviction cases in New York State and more than in many large American cities, including Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. A state moratorium on evictions — one of the strongest in the nation — has helped keep the number of cases from being even higher; they are far below prepandemic levels.
While many lawsuits do not lead to actual evictions, the mere filing of a case can land a renter on a so-called tenant blacklist, making it much more difficult to find and qualify for another apartment.
Still, many residents, like Ms. Fernandez, remain out of work and unable to pay rent. The 12.4 percent unemployment rate in the Bronx in September was almost triple the national figure.
More than $248 million in pandemic rent relief has been distributed in the borough, according to the most recent data, more than in the entire states of Indiana, Arizona and Connecticut combined. The state has been so overwhelmed with requests for aid that it has stopped accepting most new applications and says that more than 70,000 pending applications could be left in limbo without more federal funds.
Interviews with landlords and tenants paint a grim portrait of a borough in distress, where the housing crisis is straining economic recovery.
Some of those who did not receive or qualify for rent relief because they did not submit an application or did not meet the criteria may face eviction once the moratorium expires in January. Others will struggle for years to climb out of debt. Without rental income, property owners could let buildings slip into disrepair.
“I’m very concerned about the long-term impact of such a momentous event,” said Matthew Murphy, the executive director of the New York University Furman Center.
An out-of-work cook worries for her daughters
Ever since she moved to New York from Guayaquil, Ecuador, three years ago, Ms. Fernandez has worked as a cook.
Since she lost her job, she has struggled to find work. She got Covid-19 again this March and has been unable to stand for long periods of time. “I can’t find a full-time job because I feel physically weak,’’ she said.
She cannot afford food and sometimes gets help from a nearby church pantry. She is especially concerned for her daughters, Clara and Marta.
“I can go hungry,” she said, “but they can’t. I do nails, clean apartments, anything.”
She applied for the rent relief program when the landlord of her Mott Haven building pushed her. But she said she had not received any notice that her application was being considered.
“I break down and start crying,” she said. “But then I control myself because who will take care of my daughters if I’m not around?”
Her landlord, Inocencio González, could not be reached for comment.
Without a job, Ms. Fernandez is anxious about the future.
“Thank God my landlord hasn’t been pushing or bothering with the rent money, but months keep passing and my pressure has gone up a lot,” she said.
A social worker owes more than $40,000 in back rent
Mercedes Escoto, 63, has not paid rent on her two-bedroom apartment in the Highbridge neighborhood since April 2020. As of October, the sum of her unpaid bills, according to a letter she got from her landlord, was more than $43,000. In May, the landlord filed court papers seeking her eviction.
But like many renters facing eviction during the pandemic, her troubles had begun long before.
Five years ago, her landlord abruptly raised the monthly rent from around $1,400 to $2,000, she said. The rent would have claimed almost half her income — Ms. Escoto earns around $59,000 a year as a social worker and also takes care of her mother, who lives with her.
“I told them from the get go, I could not pay all of that,” she said.
Unable to afford the increase, she fell behind on rent. She borrowed money from a city emergency assistance program and took roughly $11,000 out of her retirement account for back rent — money she is still paying back.
The pandemic worsened Ms. Escoto’s financial woes. Her mother got Covid-19 in March 2020 and needs a walker, oxygen and pain pills. Ms. Escoto had to take weeks off from work without pay. She struggled with anxiety and depression.
“I used to cry every day,” she said. “It was too much for me.”
She also said she has had a leaky bathroom ceiling and nonfunctional oven, emblematic of issues that are particularly prevalent in rent-stabilized buildings like hers. Unlike the city’s other four boroughs, the Bronx has many more rent-stabilized units than unregulated apartments.
She said that even if she could afford to pay back the rent, she is reluctant to do so until the repairs are made, especially as the moratorium on evictions has kept her case from moving forward. Ms. Escoto has also applied for rent relief from the state.
The landlord, a limited liability company associated with Isaac Kassirer, who has received national attention for pushing to gentrify affordable housing, filed papers last year seeking to deregulate the building so it can charge higher rents.
In an emailed statement, Todd Rothenberg, a lawyer representing the landlord, said Ms. Escoto “has not paid a single penny in 21 months” while the landlord “has to pay me, his property taxes, his mortgage, the heating, the hot water etc., without any income whatsoever by Ms. Escoto.”
He noted that the landlord had agreed to charge Ms. Escoto a lower rent — around $1,500 — in October 2020. It was not clear why she was still receiving bills reflecting a higher amount.
We’re not bloodsuckers, a real estate executive says
Of all the eviction cases filed in the Bronx since March 2020, about 70 of them were submitted by OneSource Property Management, a real estate company that owns and manages 25 apartment buildings in the borough.
In the months after the pandemic arrived in New York, rent collections dropped by 40 percent across the company’s properties, said Valentina Gojcaj, an executive at OneSource.
In August 2020, Ms. Gojcaj said the company decided to move forward in filing the eviction cases, believing that they would enable her tenants to qualify for some kind of financial assistance. Instead, the cases were put on hold by the moratorium, and rent continued to go unpaid.
With the drop in rental revenue, the company started to dip into its savings reserved for large capital expenditures like new boilers, Ms. Gojcaj said. It has been made worse, she added, with the rising cost of operating the company’s buildings, notably a $160,000 increase from last year in expected heating costs.
By June 2021, the arrears had climbed to nearly $800,000, she said, and she sought help through the state’s pandemic rental aid program.
It was a nightmare. Each of the 70 applications had to be submitted individually, making it virtually impossible for her to follow their statuses. Tenants also had to submit information for each case. Only 20 renters responded, she said.
While she did receive emergency assistance through the state’s program for those 20 renters, she said she is still out hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We’re being told that we are such bad people, that we are bloodsuckers,” Ms. Gojcaj said. “We are doing the best that you can just like everyone else, trying to make things work and being beat up on unfairly.”
A cleaner and cab driver struggle to catch up
Diana Mendez, a cleaner, and her husband, a taxi driver, pay $1,800 for a two-bedroom apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where they live with their five children. But after the pandemic hit, Ms. Mendez said she saw almost 90 percent of her work disappear, and her husband lost customers too.
For months, they were able to scrounge the money for rent. But then in October of last year, they started to fall behind. By May, they owed some $10,700, and their landlord had filed a lawsuit seeking their eviction.
“This has really affected us and our community, we’re poor people and are the ones that have been the most affected by this,” Ms. Mendez said.
Through a city aid program, which provided the couple with $1,700 every month, they were able to slowly pay the money back, Ms. Mendez said. She said they were able to find some more work, but still not enough to stabilize their finances.
“If it wasn’t for public assistance, we wouldn’t have been able to pay rent and would have gotten evicted,” Ms. Mendez said.
But the aid is ending this month, she said. And she remains unsure how the couple will continue to afford their apartment.