The just-released federal Census finding that New York City lost more than 110,000 residents from July 2020 to July 2021 tells us a great deal about both the impact of the pandemic and the declining quality of life in the city. This is called voting with your feet. But it also suggests a reason the much-hyped eviction tsunami is actually not happening: When you can’t be sure of finding new tenants, you’re not quick to kick out current ones.
This goes counter to dire predictions. As New York’s pandemic-inspired eviction moratorium finally expired in January, tenant-advocate groups offered a real-estate weather forecast: A tsunami of evictions, spurred by rapacious landlords eager and able to raise rents, was on the way.
Said the Legal Aid Society’s Judith Goldiner: “When restrictions are lifted, there will be tens of thousands of cases. . . . This would overwhelm the courts and likely prompt a new wave of infections and evictions.”
Two months later, the numbers have begun to come in, and no tsunami is in evidence. In fact, eviction filings are actually lower than pre-pandemic levels. Instead, the ones hurting are small-property owners facing inflation-driven rising costs and property taxes. They’re far from eager to evict even when the rent is overdue.
The picture is clear from numbers compiled by the Princeton Eviction Lab: Average filings in February historically (pre-pandemic, 2016-18) were 19,338. February 2022 (the first month after the state moratorium expired Jan. 15) saw just 6,373. That’s a drop of 67%.
And many eviction actions lead to compromise deals.
Talking with small-property owners (one asked that her last name not be used), makes clear just why the forecast tsunami hasn’t hit: They’re reluctant to evict and far more inclined to “work with tenants” to resolve back payments.
“Isabel,” whose family has owned a group of four-story buildings in East Harlem and is dealing with non-payment issues right now, says this of eviction: “I don’t want to do it at all. It costs me thousands in legal fees, and the courts are completely clogged. I see it as a nightmare.”
Chris Athineos, who owns a six-family building in Bay Ridge, laughs off the idea that rising rents in some parts of the city mean he can name his price today. “Maybe in trendy places like Williamsburg or parts of Manhattan, but not in Bay Ridge. We’re still an hour subway ride from the city.”
He’d rather work out a repayment plan than evict, for fear of enduring a long-term vacancy — a serious cash-flow problem at a time when his real-estate taxes have risen steeply and he has a boiler to replace — and 2019 state law won’t let him raise rents even on price-controlled units and even for major capital repairs.
Ann Korschak, whose family of Ukrainian immigrants owns two 10-unit buildings on the Upper West Side, has never once initiated an eviction action in 20 years. “When you have good tenants, you keep them,” she says. She adds that what can appear to be rent increases today may actually just be a return to pre-COVID levels, as inflation rages.
Some owners may be raising rents as pandemic panic abates. But even this may be good news: If new tenants are willing to pay top dollar for vacant apartments, that says demand to live in New York is rebounding, something that can’t be taken for granted.
Like the Census, a new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has found that New York’s affluent are not only leaving the city but that moves completely out of the area — i.e., to places like Florida and Texas, for example — “dominate out-migrations.” Gentrification may be a luxury problem of the past.
Our fear, in other words, shouldn’t be of an incoming tsunami but an outbound one carrying New Yorkers to safer, lower-taxed cities. Our elected officials shouldn’t be demonizing and squeezing landlords, but making New York a city where residents want to stay.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.