Tenant eviction rates have long been high in Buffalo, one of the poorest cities in the country.
But according to a report released Wednesday by the think tank Partnership for the Public Good, court-ordered evictions and other involuntary moves are approaching a crisis level, with as many as 13% of all renting households evicted or forced to move annually.
In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, landlords filed 7,846 eviction cases in Buffalo Housing Court, according to records from the Eighth Judicial District. Of those, the Partnership for the Public Good found that more than 4,300 resulted in court-ordered evictions.
Most cases arise when tenants fail to pay rent, the report found. While a major state policy overhaul slowed the eviction process last year, there’s not yet evidence the policy reduced evictions.
“Everyone knew the problem was there, but no one had run the numbers before,” said Sam Magavern, the report’s lead author and a senior policy fellow at the think tank. “We found, however, that the numbers are just astonishing.”
The report, commissioned by the progressive neighborhood group PUSH Buffalo and based on interviews with more than 100 tenants, attorneys, judges and community organizations, illuminates a reality that some advocates say policymakers have overlooked. On an average weekday, roughly 35 eviction cases pass through housing court, drawing dozens of landlords and tenants to a dim, beige hallway on the courthouse’s seventh floor.
In New York, eviction is a multistep legal process that begins – in the case of nonpayment – in the weeks after a tenant fails to pay rent. Once a case reaches the court, a hearing officer can dismiss it, issue a default judgment, or attempt a settlement between the landlord and tenant.
Tenant advocates say they recognize that landlords need to collect regular, timely rents and enforce the terms of leases if needed. But according to both those advocates and the Partnership for the Public Good, tenants in nonpayment cases are often on the brink, paying a disproportionately large share of their income toward housing.
In a sampling of cases reviewed by the organization, rent delinquencies were typically small and often attributed to loss of income or unexpected expenses. Low-wage workers with no paid time off, for instance, sometimes fall behind over events as common as a school-age child getting sick, said Grace Andriette, the deputy director of Neighborhood Legal Services, who contributed to the analysis.
Real incomes in Buffalo have, over the past 40 years, fallen for all but the highest-wage workers, according to a 2017 paper by the national nonprofit research group PolicyLink. Rents increased over that same period.
An analysis by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, published in January, found that more than a quarter of renting households in the greater Buffalo area spend more than half their income on rent. That figure has not improved since 2006.
“The issue is really poverty and the cost of housing,” Andriette said. “We live in one of the poorest cities in the nation ... If you don’t have money, you can’t afford to pay rent.”
Recent policy changes have attempted to address some of these problems. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed last June, limited sudden rent increases and extended the eviction process, among other measures.
Buffalo’s eviction procedures are also unusual, said Joseph Deren, one of the court attorneys who mediate these cases, in that low-income tenants can access free legal representation if they want it. As a result, most eviction filings don’t lead to an actual warrant. Instead, the court, the landlord and the tenant often negotiate on either a repayment plan or a “mutual termination,” in which the tenant agrees to leave the property but has more time to do it.
And yet, evictions do still result in homelessness and other severe harms, the Partnership for the Public Good found. Nearly 12% of Erie County households experiencing homelessness point to a court- or landlord-ordered eviction, according to data from the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.
Wait lists for affordable housing can stretch years. And much of the rental stock available to low-income tenants is substandard, said Katherine Dibble, who oversees pro bono eviction defense for the Volunteer Lawyers Project. The partnership's report urges local and state officials to tackle those issues through a number of more aggressive tenant protection and affordable housing policies, including one new law, called Home Stability Support, that would help low-income households at risk of eviction pay their rents.
“I think we’re coming up on a housing crisis if we’re not already in the middle of one,” Dibble said. “... The housing market is leading to greater amounts of instability, especially for low-income tenants.”
Those tenants include people like Margaret Cameron, who shuffled into housing court behind her royal-blue walker this week. The lifelong East Side resident used to own the house she now has to leave.
When her husband died, she fell behind on taxes, and the city auctioned the house to a downstate investor who sent her a $700 rent bill. But her monthly income is only $780, Cameron told the court. With Deren's help, Cameron and the landlord agreed to $400 per month until July, when she'll move out of her home of more than 30 years.
“I’m good," she said in a whisper as the case wrapped up. "Honestly, I'm relieved."