In New York, Essential Workers Face Eviction

12:09 minutes

Panoramic roof view of apartment buildings and homes in the bronx
Bronx, New York. Credit: Shutterstock

This story is a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

If you walk through many towns during this pandemic, you can tell that something is different just by looking at the storefronts. Some businesses have limited hours, others have capacity restrictions. Still other businesses are temporarily closed. Some are gone altogether. The pandemic has also had other financial effects that are harder to see—and often, that financial stress is hitting the same people who are already most likely to have gotten sick.

According to a recent analysis of court data, New York City landlords seek evictions nearly four times more often in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths—neighborhoods that also tend to be largely Black and Latino. Areas with high numbers of evictions also tend to be where many of the city’s “essential workers” live—people with public-facing jobs, with limited options for avoiding the risk of infection. 

A recent New York Times article dove into the dataset created by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Stefanos Chen, the article’s author, joins Ira to talk about how the housing market in New York has been affected by the pandemic, and the ways that certain neighborhoods have been disproportionately threatened by eviction. 

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Segment Guests

Stefanos Chen

Stefanos Chen is a reporter covering real estate for the New York Times. He’s based in New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a look at the link between climate change and your allergies and a question of whether octopuses dream. But first, walking down the Main Street of many towns in areas hard hit by COVID, you can tell that something is different just by looking at the storefronts.

Some businesses with limited hours, some temporarily closed, some gone, altogether. But it’s not just those shuttered stores. New data maps out the residential and real estate rental market in New York and looks at evictions across the area and the intersections between COVID, real estate, and race.

Here to talk about what they found is Stefanos Chen, a reporter covering real estate for The New York Times. You’ll find a link to his article on this topic on our website at ScienceFriday.com. Welcome to Science Friday.

STEFANOS CHEN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Give us a snapshot of what you looked at here and what you found.

STEFANOS CHEN: So we received some new data from a nonprofit housing coalition, where they looked at basically the full last year since the pandemic really hit New York at court data. We know from other reporting that some of the places hit hardest in the city have been the places that have already had gaps in their social safety net, even before the pandemic. And this report confirms that in a way, in a very broad and systemic way.

We look here at how, since the pandemic started last March, eviction filings are taking place now nearly four times more often in the New York neighborhoods that had the most deaths from COVID compared to the ones with the least deaths. And when we look a little closer, if you overlay the data, those neighborhoods also are in areas that are predominantly Black and Latino, places where what we think of with essential workers, these are their homes, the people who didn’t get to work remotely in the last year, people who had to get on the subway and go to work. So there’s a lot of different factors here that we can lay on top of each other here and see the patterns.

IRA FLATOW: So the people who were most hit by COVID medically, who were suffering, were also being hit most economically.

STEFANOS CHEN: That’s right. Yeah, I think there is a lot of overlap between the health and housing here in the sense that these are the people who have been working in jobs, service jobs, that don’t pay a ton to begin with. And when they get sick, being unable to pay the rent becomes a problem really quickly.

IRA FLATOW: Did this data come as a surprise to anybody?

STEFANOS CHEN: I don’t think so much as a surprise to people who’ve been paying attention to just the inequalities in the city. But I think, for many, it is confirmation of what they knew already, which is that this virus has exacerbated very long-standing inequalities in the city. These patterns here are not naturally occurring.

It’s the fact that the people with the least protection, the most vulnerable people are on the front lines for us. And these are also industries where there’s been a ton of job losses. Unemployment is a lot higher in service industries, like if you’re a cook or a janitor or a grocery clerk. These are all the jobs that had to happen during the pandemic, and that job might not exist anymore. So these are the people who got hit hardest and first.

IRA FLATOW: For our listeners not in the New York area, describe the neighborhoods that you’re talking about.

STEFANOS CHEN: So I think a lot of people think of Manhattan as New York if they’re not from here. But what we see in this data is that almost all of the neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates were not in Manhattan. Eight of the 10 were in the Bronx, which is the borough north of Manhattan, there’s one in Queens, one in Staten Island.

These are all what we consider the outer boroughs. And if you look at the income here, Manhattan is the wealthiest of the boroughs, the Bronx is the least affluent. So again, it goes back to this idea that the people making the least money before this happened are also the people now facing eviction.

IRA FLATOW: And even in the lower-income parts of this city, these are not what you’d exactly call affordable apartments, are they?

STEFANOS CHEN: I know it’s funny that there’s a lot of headlines about how the cities had record rent cuts in the last year, which is totally true. Numerically, the numbers are lower than they have been in more than a decade. But when you look at what those numbers are, a lot of it still reflects a Manhattan standard. In Manhattan, people were going nuts about the median rent dipping below $3,000, which is the first time it’s done that in about a decade.

But when you look at more broad data citywide, the median rent that people pay is just under $1,500 a month, and they’re not doing that successfully all the time. A lot of times they’re struggling to do that. They’re paying a lot more of their salary than they comfortably should to hit that mark. So these neighborhoods are what you’d consider more affordable than Manhattan. But if you’re already living there, it’s because you couldn’t afford Manhattan and you’ve been pushed to neighborhoods farther from core Manhattan.

IRA FLATOW: What you seem to be saying is that if you draw other kinds of maps of the city, let’s say income inequality or air quality, for example, they would overlap in a Venn diagram way, right?

STEFANOS CHEN: Yeah. Yeah, it really would. If you color coded this, you’d get whatever nasty color you get when you mix everything together, because it’s really the same neighborhoods that are affected by all these different factors. When you look at data about higher rates of asthma in the city, it’s in these lower-income neighborhoods.

When you look at where people lost the most jobs, it’s in these same neighborhoods. Where there were the most cases of COVID, as we see here, it’s in these same neighborhoods. So you have these folks who are really the blue collar backbone of the city, and we put a lot on their shoulders. And I think this data shows that it’s all compounding those effects.

IRA FLATOW: New York City is well known for having some eccentricities in its rent laws with respect to things like rent control, eviction laws. Could any of this effect be attributed to that? Or is this, say, more systemic thing that you think you’d see in other metro areas also?

STEFANOS CHEN: Well, I would say that New York, yes, does have a very Byzantine and difficult to understand rent laws. But I do also think that this is not just a New York City phenomenon. This you could go to any big or mid-sized city in the country and see something similar happening. The thing about New York, though, and I think a lot of critics would point to this, is that one other factor here is that the landlords in some of these neighborhoods, these critics would say to be more litigious even before the pandemic.

Because if you can, let’s say, get rid of a tenant who was rent regulated, whose rent can only rise so much per year, if that person is out of the picture, the next person who comes in, you can now charge them significantly more, in some cases. So there’s also that jaundiced view here that these people who are most vulnerable to eviction, they were already targets to begin with, because these are in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods where the owners are looking to raise the rent.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, we’re talking about eviction data here, but isn’t there a moratorium on evictions in place? How does that play into this?

STEFANOS CHEN: Yes, so there’s been a moratorium for most of the last year, but it has not prevented filings from occurring. And many of these filings that we’re looking at predate the pandemic, and they’ve just been held up in courts because the courts have been essentially closed. What we’re seeing, though, is that there is still a large share of these that were filed because the pandemic moratorium on evictions has not been absolute.

So a lot of these cases have started to move forward. And in the beginning of May, the moratorium lifts unless something else changes. So we have, in New York state, over 220,000 of these cases in the courts, including commercial tenants. And all of those are going to move forward when this moratorium ends.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s not going to help the health situation at all, is it?

STEFANOS CHEN: No, and I think this has become a rallying cry for a lot of protesters in the city that health is housing, and vice versa, housing is health care. And when you are putting folks on the street in the middle of a pandemic, it really exacerbates this problem. Obviously, you also have to consider the landlord. Many of them are smaller mom and pop homeowners, and they, too, are suffering. But folks getting put out on the street right now is also probably one of the worst things you could do in a pandemic where we know this is an airborne virus and there are crowded homeless shelters currently in the city.

IRA FLATOW: Does the pandemic relief bill which was recently enacted help this situation at all?

STEFANOS CHEN: It’s hopeful. It’s a sizable commitment by the federal government here. We have a $1.9 trillion in this stimulus package coming out to all the states. In New York state alone, we could be looking at $2.3 billion in federal relief, and then some more from the state.

The thing, though, that some of these housing observers have noted, though, is that a lot of this money, even before this recent attempt, has gotten caught up in red tape. So even though it’s coming, that’s great, but we don’t know how it’s going to be disbursed. We don’t know the mechanism by which it will be disbursed. And there’s still a lot of concern that this money could just sit somewhere, figuratively, and not get to the places where it needs to go.

IRA FLATOW: At the beginning of the segment, I talked about the shuttered retail stores that we all see. How is that real estate linked to the residential market that you cover?

STEFANOS CHEN: I think there is a big overlap, especially with retail and with food services. When they shutter, their employees lose their livelihood as well. And again, a lot of these people we call essential workers today were waiters.

They were janitors. They were cooks and cashiers. And all of these jobs disappeared, and there’s no clear sign that these jobs will come back when everyone is vaccinated, because a lot of these stores are shuttered for good.

IRA FLATOW: We’re trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible. I would imagine that if you’re worried about where you’re going to live and whether you’re going to be out on the street tomorrow, getting vaccinated is not at the top of your health list.

STEFANOS CHEN: That’s another thing that I think it’s more difficult for a lot of these folks in these neighborhoods, these large immigrant populations where English might not be the first language. There’s issues of document status, whether they are citizens or not, and there’s a culture of reluctance and fear of the government in some ways. And so you have to deal with that on top of the issue that it’s tough to get an appointment. So just think of the folks who may not speak English as a first language, may be working long hours or odd hours and not know how to navigate that process. So that’s also compounding this.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, you’re a New York reporter looking at New York data. You touched on this a bit before about expanding to a national scene, you would expect there to be similarities in your analysis all across the country.

STEFANOS CHEN: I think if you’d do the same research in basically any other midsize or big city in the country, you’ll find something similar in that we have a national housing crisis, affordable housing crisis. There isn’t enough of it. And when you look at what that means on the ground, it’s that you have people living in very tight conditions, ones that are really conducive for the virus to spread, people doubling up, tripling up in apartments that they’re struggling to pay for.

And they lose a job and suddenly, they’re facing eviction. And so that phenomenon is not New York exclusive. I think you would find that just about anywhere in the country right now. And we’re seeing that from many other reports, not specifically about COVID, but even before COVID this problem existed. And there’s really no quick solution to that.

IRA FLATOW: Stefanos, thank you for taking time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Stefanos Chen is a reporter covering real estate for The New York Times, and you’ll find a link to his article on this topic on our website at ScienceFriday.com.

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