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Could a Rent Strike Overwhelm New York City's Busiest Courts?

HOST INTRO: For the past month, New York City renters have been calling for rent cancellation because so many people are out of work due to coronavirus. Today, they’re taking matters into their own hands by starting a rent strike. Even some tenants who can pay, are withholding their rent in solidarity with neighbors who can’t. Reporter Lauren Peace looks beyond the strike, and asks what the effect will be on New York City’s busiest courtrooms once they reopen.

LAUREN PEACE (Byline): On a typical day, New York City Housing Courts process hundreds of cases across every borough. Nakeeb Sidique is the housing director for Legal Aid in Brooklyn. Normally, he spends a lot of time in housing court and he says the courthouses themselves are a zoo.

SIDDIQUE: You're looking for your courtroom, dozens and dozens of people everywhere. Only a few bench benches to sit on. There are people sitting on the floor you know. And it’s just mass chaos.

PEACE: But in early March, New York courts closed when the stay-at-home order was put in place. Then, a moratorium was placed on eviction filings. Now, the courthouses are empty.

Siddique anticipates there’s going to be a surge of cases filed after the moratorium ends. Today’s rent strike will likely increase the number of cases.

And if the floodgates open?

SIDDIQUE: I think there's just probably no way they could really handle it.

PEACE: That could have serious consequences.

Altagracia Pierre-Outerbridge is an attorney who represents both landlords and tenants. She says filings in housing court aren’t just about money. They can be about really serious safety concerns, too, so the time it takes to process a case matters.

One of the problems specific to quarantine is roommate disputes that result in violence:

PIERRE-OUTERBRIDGE: It's a difficult situation, where folks who didn't use to spend 24, seven at home. Right and already had a hard situation a tough relationship with their roommates, are now at home with them. 24 seven, so we're getting these calls.

PEACE: Pierre-Outerbridge says attorneys are doing their best to negotiate outside the courtroom. But both Pierre-Outerbridge and Siddique say as far as they’re aware, there is no plan in place for how the courts will reopen.

Lauren Peace, Columbia Radio News


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