23 Feb The Victims of the Eviction Moratorium
A coalition of Chinese immigrant landlords in New York say they’re on the verge of losing everything because of tenants who have stopped paying rent.
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"Blackstone is one of the largest landlords in [the] world," tweeted the New York tenant advocacy group Housing Justice for All in May. "We know they’re rich enough to #CancelRent, and we’re going to make them."
And then there’s Chao Huai Gao, an immigrant from Zhengzhou, China. He owns a modest two-story house in Queens and isn’t rich enough to forgo rental income. He tells Reason that the emotional distress of having an occupant who isn’t paying rent and who he can’t evict has him contemplating "jumping off of a building."
Gao came to the U.S. in 1999, working in New York restaurants and nail salons and doing interior renovation. "I haven’t taken a day off since I came to America," he says. In 2017, he and his wife, who is a caretaker, made a down payment on a house as an investment property, supplementing their savings with a loan from their family in China. To cover their mortgage, they rented out both floors and moved into a cheap studio apartment nearby with their two young daughters.
In March 2020, the college students sharing the second-floor apartment gave notice that they were moving out. After the apartment was vacated, a neighbor alerted Gao that he noticed that the lights were on at night. Soon after, Gao discovered that one of his former tenants had given her keys to a friend who had moved in without permission.
Gao has never met the squatter now living in his house and is afraid to contact this person out of fear that he’ll be sued for harassment. The squatter, who is a dropout from an elite private university, has never offered to pay rent. (Reason was unable to reach him for comment, so we’re not including his name in this story.)
Under New York state law, because the squatter has been in the apartment for more than 30 days, retaking possession will require a court order—but Gao can’t obtain a court order, because New York’s housing courts have been mostly closed during the pandemic. Gao tells Reason that he’s in a state of personal crisis, hemorrhaging money, and consumed with worry about losing his home.
Gao is part of an association of about 200 Chinese immigrant landlords in New York City with tenants who have stopped paying rent. They’re speaking out about the impact of the government’s decision to temporarily halt evictions—a policy championed by the #CancelRent movement. On September 4, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a national eviction moratorium that is currently set to expire at the end of March. New York is one of many states that has also passed a series of administrative orders and temporary laws halting evictions on top of the CDC order.
Although technically these measures are intended to help tenants directly impacted by the pandemic, in practice they’ve brought New York’s eviction proceedings to a complete halt. From mid-March through the end of November, in a typical year, there would have been about 14,000 evictions in New York City. In 2020, over this same period, there were just 2. New York now has a backlog of 200,000 eviction cases that pre-date COVID-19.
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Footage Credit: Damian Bartolacci/Pond5
Music Credits: "January," by Kai Engel, Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Written and produced by Jim Epstein; graphics by Isaac Reese; translation by Shuang Li; audio post-production by Ian Keyser
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