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Officials launch countywide COVID-19 eviction prevention program

Sep 17, 2020

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As a potential eviction crisis looms in Rochester and its suburbs, a new program will provide tenants and landlords across Monroe County with legal and financial assistance. At the same time, a new countywide court structure will consolidate eviction cases from town courts and Rochester City Court into one place.

City, county, and court leaders announced the Eviction Prevention Pilot Initiative during a news conference Thursday. The program is a collaborative effort between Monroe County, the city of Rochester, and a handful of local nonprofit organizations that is aimed at helping tenants facing pandemic-induced financial hardships remain in their homes.

“The initiative redesigns the system to be easier for individuals to access these services,” County Executive Adam Bello said Thursday. “The program removes barriers from those in greatest need by meeting them where they are.”

Tenants in need can dial 211 to be directed to the right aid service.

The county will inject $6 million into the program, which will come from federal pandemic relief funding it has received. The funding will be used for rent assistance in the form of direct payments to landlords, among other things.

In August, the Volunteer Legal Services Project launched a countywide “Right to Counsel” program that will be tied into the new collaborative announced Thursday. Through that initiative, VLSP provides tenants facing eviction with attorneys. The project resulted from two years of advocacy from attorneys and housing activists.

To complement the intervention programs, local court officials have created a county-wide Special COVID Intervention Part to exclusively handle pandemic-related eviction cases from Rochester City Court and courts in Monroe County’s towns. Eviction proceedings will resume in local courts beginning in October, and the Special COVID Intervention Part is expected to run through December.

In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act into law. That law prevents people whose finances suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic from being evicted. But the law doesn’t erase tenants’ unpaid rent, and there’s no provision in the law preventing landlords from filing eviction cases.

Even if tenants aren’t kicked out of their apartments for not paying rent, a court could still issue a judgment against them. Just how that law will work is something that still needs to be tested in the courts.

“We can only use previous years as gauge, but we’re expecting cases to be in the thousands,” said Craig Doran, administrative judge for the 7th Judicial District. “Because of everybody here coming together, I think we are uniquely ready to handle what comes our way and provide the assistance we need.”

The United Way of Greater Rochester is one of the nonprofits participating in the new Eviction Prevention Pilot Initiative. Each year the organization distributes about $800,000 to eviction prevention services and it will play a role in directing the $6 million county contribution to agencies, said United Way President and CEO Jamie Saunders.

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on evictions has yet to be fully seen, but now is the time to start preparing for a wave of court cases, Saunders said.

“This is truly an example of how we can come together across all levels of government and our not for profits to, out of a crisis, solve problems,” Saunders said.

Mark Muoio, housing program director for the Legal Aid Society, a partner of the Volunteer Legal Services Project, said while the pandemic may be a catalyst for a wave of eviction filings, it exemplifies a longstanding issue.

“I’ve been asked by policy makers and media representatives about a coming wave of evictions down the line,” Muoio said. “I do still think that is possible, but I also see an eviction crisis in the immediate past. Before COVID, court systems were already full, almost 40 cases a day, five days a week.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.