Thousands in Rent Debt, No End In Sight: Five New Yorkers’ Stories

“I feel like if COVID doesn’t kill me, the stress will.”

Tenants and housing activists gathered at Maria Hernandez Park for a rally in the streets of Bushwick, demanding the city to cancel rent immediately. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Tenants and Housing Activists gathered at Maria Hernandez Park for a rally and march in the streets of Bushwick.
Tenants and housing activists gathered at Maria Hernandez Park for a rally in the streets of Bushwick, demanding the city to cancel rent immediately. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Tenants and Housing Activists gathered at Maria Hernandez Park for a rally and march in the streets of Bushwick.
Tenants and housing activists gathered at Maria Hernandez Park for a rally in the streets of Bushwick, demanding the city to cancel rent immediately. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Last month, the New York State Legislature approved an emergency bill to ban evictions for at least two months — preventing thousands of New Yorkers from being booted during the winter amid a raging pandemic. The law was a tremendous relief for renters who are struggling or flat-out unable to pay their rent as they await federal aid. But behind the state’s latest eviction moratorium is a percolating crisis of rent debt. Eviction bans and court mandates have kept many in their homes, but eviction proceedings will start up again in May and renters will be forced to either pay off their back rent or be pushed out. The city’s rent-regulated tenants alone owe more than $1 billion due to the pandemic, and across the state that number, for all renters, likely exceeds $3 billion.

New Yorkers have drained their savings, borrowed money, and put their health at risk by working in-person jobs to make ends meet and pay their rent, but it hasn’t been enough. We asked five of them how they’re trying to prepare for when the rent is due.

Allilsa Fernandez, who lives in the second-story apartment of a house in Jamaica, Queens, hasn’t been able to pay her rent since April and owes $16,200.

At the beginning of the pandemic I had a full-time job as a home health aide lined up, but I just couldn’t do it. I have a number of health conditions that make me high-risk, like asthma and circulatory issues. So now I just have my part-time job — I’m a peer mental-health specialist — but it’s only 18 hours a week, and it’s just not enough. My roommate, who was a babysitter, lost their job outright and they couldn’t pay their portion of the rent (it’s $1,800 a month), and that’s how things started to spiral. I’ve been searching for something where I can work from home, but it hasn’t been easy. My mom is in the hospital with COVID-19 in critical condition — her oxygen is not stable; she’s very lethargic — and I look at that and say, “Oh my God, I made the best decision for myself because that could have easily been me.” I feel like if COVID doesn’t kill me, the stress will.

My expenses have drastically changed since the pandemic hit. My income went from $3,400 a month, give or take, to roughly $1,000. It was a huge, huge loss. I was okay, and now it’s horrible. I’m right on the cusp of being eligible for food stamps — I literally make $3 over the threshold — but I’m poor enough that I can’t continue to pay my rent and eat. Sometimes I had to go to sleep hungry. And I have medications, my electric bill, the phone bill, which my part-time job relies on, and other costs. And every day you just have to make the decisions: Am I going to eat? Am I going to put myself in a position where I could end up in the situation my mom is in? Or just say, you know what, we’re just going to deal with the rent later. And I don’t know what that’ll look like. I really don’t have a plan. How do I save up to pay it all back? It’s like taking out a loan we never planned to. I don’t know how I’m going to make up the difference, but you know what, at least I’m alive.

Rocío* is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who lives in the North Bronx. She owes $11,000 in rent.

I’m at the mercy of God. Before it started, I was cleaning a spa in Manhattan. All the time I’ve lived here, almost 24 years, by myself and with my four pets, I’ve been able to pay my rent on my own. I haven’t been in any city program or anything like that. But between November and December [2019] business started going down. My friend, the owner of the spa, was giving me work because she knows my situation, that I don’t have papers. After November she opened another spa in Los Angeles and said she was going to close this one.

So in March I couldn’t pay rent. And from there I couldn’t even take out money [from the bank]. I was at zero — and I haven’t been able to recover. I was calling everyone, and the first thing they say is, “Do you have Social Security?” No. And they say, “You don’t qualify.” So with my friends who were going through a similar situation, I was going to schools to get free lunches, getting some money together to buy my pets food — I have three cats and a dog. I didn’t have [anything] for my food, much less for the rent.

I’ve been looking for jobs, but there are people who take advantage of my situation. They don’t want to pay well. They want to pay you $5 per hour to be inside their homes. Especially if you’re going to clean, and someone has been infected, it’s not worth it. I was calling people I’ve worked for before, and no one wanted anyone in their homes. It’s understandable because of safety, right? With the need and desperation, one looks wherever one can. But nothing.

Spencer Hanvik, who lost work as a dog walker and voice actor, hasn’t paid rent for their Bushwick apartment since April. They owe $20,000 in rent.

I’ve been on a de facto rent strike since April. My roommates and I are gig workers, restaurant workers, and performers. And in March we wondered what to do. We’re suddenly eligible for unemployment but that’s going to take weeks or months — it’s different for each of us. And even when we get that, it just doesn’t do enough. I benefited from the PUA at the beginning and have since dropped to the paltry minimum of $182 a week. An average month, I make $500 to just under $1,000. Previously I’d make — not a ton more, but I was at least clearing $1,500 or $2,000 a month. The total rent for the unit is $2,500. By necessity and politics, my roommates and I aren’t paying rent.

At the beginning, my landlord was calling me every day a couple of times, and once he casually mentioned that his wife went to school with the Gotti family, and wanted to make sure I knew who John Gotti was. That’s been his vibe. I got a court notice recently, but he’s looking at a holdover eviction rather than a nonpayment eviction; our lease expired and wasn’t extended. One thing that I’ve been actively doing is paring down what’s in my apartment. These are my semi-disorganized day-by-day thoughts and plans, like getting a storage unit, so at least I’ll have my things and relatively high mobility if I’m evicted. I have some spiritual objects given to me by a dear teacher that I’m finding a safe place for — having the essential precious things elsewhere and not on the street. I don’t have a great answer to what preparing for the possibility of eviction looks like for me, other than just mentally and emotionally knowing that there might be a real period of hustling and figuring out my shit.

Daneiry Gonzalez worked as a home health aide until August. She owes roughly $5,000 on her Fordham apartment, on top of $4,000 she borrowed to pay her landlord.

I’ve been working during the pandemic, but had to stop in August because I had to get surgery in my hand and I’m nervous about my asthma. I had two other people helping to pay the rent but they lost work in March. They weren’t able to get government help until July, but when they got their money they left, so I was left paying the rent by myself. Just me. $1,800 a month. And I’m supporting my daughter, her little 3-month-old baby, and my stepdaughter who is 12. I was relying on my savings. Even when the money wasn’t enough I saved money for the rainy days, for years, around $7,000. Right now it’s raining and all that money is gone, and the bills keep coming and the debt keeps building. Now I have nothing.

I was sending $1,000 or $500 when I could, but I’m still in debt for five months of missed rent. A friend lent me $4,000 to pay rent. Now I’m just slowly paying back my friend instead of the landlord, and that’s on top of trying to pay the new rent each month. I can’t go back to work because my job is a danger to me. I was a live-in 24-hour aide working full days in a patient’s house. You know how hard it is to go to work with a nebulizer machine in your backpack? I get episodes sometimes three or four times during the day. You don’t know how worried I am. I can’t sleep. I think about it all the time: What am I going to do? This is why I got money to give my landlord because I don’t want to go to court for eviction — it gives them less reason to evict me if they see I am trying to pay them. But I just transferred that debt to someone else.

Marisol Morales, who is an undocumented immigrant from Panama, owes nine months’ worth of rent — $6,000 — on her South Bronx apartment.

We are rent-striking, trying to get the landlord to have some compassion. I had gotten a job last December [2019] at a restaurant in Brooklyn — I cook food from my country. Then the virus hit and I lost my job. Then I started working around November, right before Cuomo canceled indoor dining again, and we all lost our jobs — again. So my financial situation is really dire. With the little I get I buy food. My daughter’s working, and we’re trying to pay the electricity bill, the internet, whatever we can.

Hopefully the [restaurant] owner reopens, but sales were slow during the pandemic. I hope they raise that indoor-dining restriction soon. I don’t qualify for unemployment or any rent relief. There’s a lot of bureaucracy [with all the programs]. They should just cancel rent. I hope these politicians feel compassion for us — whether we’re a citizen, noncitizen, resident, or nonresident, New York needs rent relief.

* Name changed for privacy.

Thousands in Rent Debt: Five New Yorkers’ Stories