Buffalo landlords are acting to evict tenants in greater numbers than any portion of the state aside from Brooklyn, according to data from the New York State Unified Court System.
Judges have issued more than 3,700 eviction warrants this year in Erie County, primarily in Buffalo. That’s not just more than other upstate cities such as Rochester and Syracuse, but more than New York City’s other boroughs, including Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, all of which have much larger populations.
More than 1,000 involved tenants living in just two Zip Codes, 14215 and 14211, which comprise much of the Masten and University Common Council districts.
By contrast, only 863 eviction warrants were issued in all of Erie County’s suburbs.
An eviction warrant is issued by a court when a landlord proves a tenant hasn’t paid the rent or otherwise lived up to the terms of their lease. Not every warrant results in an eviction, and numbers on actual evictions are hard to come by because no one tracks them, including the city marshal’s office, which is responsible for executing the warrants in Buffalo.
Investigative Post interviewed a dozen experts and reviewed eviction data for this story. We found there’s no single reason for Buffalo’s high number of eviction warrants, but rather a combination of factors.
Poverty is a primary cause. But not the only one.
Buffalo is one of the poorest mid-sized cities in the nation, with 26.4 percent of its residents living below the poverty line.
“We don't have an affordability issue, we have a low-income issue,” said Henry Taylor Jr., University at Buffalo’s Director of the Center for Urban Studies.
He said more than 55 percent of East Side renters spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing. More than one-third pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent.
According to HUD standards, tenants who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent are classified as “rent burdened” and those with rents exceeding 50 percent of their income are considered “severely rent burdened.”
Watch our story tonight at 6 on Channel 2
Poverty is exacerbated by meager housing assistance from government programs.
- The rent allowance for welfare recipients hasn’t increased in 19 years. Rent subsidies range from a low of $169 a month for a single person to $411 for a large family. The average rent for an apartment in the city is $877.
- There’s a waitlist of more than 18,000 applicants for Section 8 housing vouchers. Fewer than 1,000 have been issued.
- The city has failed to spend any of the $16.3 million in federal COVID aid it has designated to assist low-income renters and homeowners, as of Sept. 1.
Another factor: Some tenants spent money received during the state’s rent moratorium, which ran from December 2020 to Jan. 15 of this year, on other expenses rather than saving it to pay their rent when it came due after the moratorium ended.
“There are certainly any number of instances where there were tenants that were taking advantage of the fact that the landlords really had no way to get rid of them,” said attorney Joshua Dubs, who represents landlords. “There were also instances of tenants who could pay, but just wouldn’t.”
Some believe the Erie County Tenant Landlord Hub Court, a first-in-state virtual housing court developed in 2021, expedited eviction filings.
“While it creates greater access to legal representation to many tenants facing eviction, it also makes it easier in some respects for landlords to file actions,” said Grace Andriette, Neighborhood Legal Services senior supervising attorney of housing.
Poverty a major factor in evictions
Eviction warrants this year are on pace to exceed the 4,127 issued in 2019, the year before the pandemic.
Renters account for 56 percent of households in the city; their median annual income is $28,105, according to 2021 American Community Survey estimates. Average monthly rent in Buffalo is $877, but most renters reported paying between $1,000 and $1,499.
The financial burden falls harder on those living in poorer neighborhoods. For example, in Census Tract 166, south of Martin Luther King Park, the median household income for renters is $13,000 and some residents spend up to 70 percent of their income on rent, according to research conducted by Taylor and reported in his 2021 study on the state of Buffalo’s Black community.
Bottom line: It’s not that rents are too high, but rather incomes are too low.
Segregation has concentrated poverty. The Zip Codes with the most eviction warrants are predominantly minority and suffer from high unemployment rates, for example.
“When this reality occurs in a residentially segregated city like Buffalo, whole streets are disproportionately impacted,” concluded a housing study prepared for the city in 2017.
Stagnant rental assistance
Government policies are also a contributing factor to the large number of eviction warrants.
Rent allowances for recipients of public assistance have not increased in nearly two decades.
“The amounts are abysmally low,” said Diana Proske, program director for public benefits at Neighborhood Legal Services.
Rent allowances range from $169 a month for a single person to $411 for large families. There are two types of welfare programs that provide these allowances.
Family Assistance is federally funded and provides cash to households with at least one child for up to five years.
Safety Net Assistance is for individuals, childless couples and families who have exhausted the five years of Family Assistance. These cases are funded by the state and the county, and provide recipients with two years of cash payments for rent. After two years, rent allowances are paid directly to landlords.
The state permits counties to supplement those allowances, but Erie County does not participate.
“The state has allowed counties to apply for shelter supplement programs since at least 2009 but Erie County has declined to do so,” Proske said.
The county argues the programs are too expensive and would reduce other benefits that public assistance recipients receive, such as food stamps.
Adding shelter supplements would come at the expense of county taxpayers, who would foot 71 percent of the bill, according to Karen Rybicki, first deputy commissioner of Erie County Department of Social Services.
“We absolutely are helping individuals through other mechanisms,” she said.
Section 8 housing vouchers are another way the government helps the poor pay the rent. The federal program typically covers 60 to 70 percent of the rent in housing selected by renters. Three agencies — the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, Rental Assistance Corporation of WNY and Belmont Housing Resources of WNY — administer the program. Demand is much greater than supply, however. Between the three agencies, only 918 vouchers have been issued, while 18,084 applicants remain on their waiting lists.
Buffalo has earmarked $16.3 million in federal COVID relief money for an “Affordable Housing Advancement Fund,” according to an annual performance report the Brown administration submitted to the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Common Council the first week of September.
The city had not yet spent, nor had it contracted to spend, any of that money, according to the report.
The Affordable Housing Advancement Fund comprises three pots of money:
- $9.3 million for a housing fund for rental assistance and the “development of new affordable housing units” in “Buffalo’s historically marginalized communities.”
- $4 million in rental assistance for public housing tenants.
- $3 million “to address funding gaps in existing affordable housing developments.”
The report claimed $4 million would be committed to keeping Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority tenants in their homes. But BMHA’s executive director, Gillian Brown, told Investigative Post the actual figure was $2 million.
Michael DeGeorge, the mayor’s spokesman, said the larger figure included in the progress report to the U.S. Treasury was “an estimated number” and that it “will be updated in the next filing to reflect the actual [American Rescue Plan] commitment to BMHA for rental arrears.”
Spending the rent money
A number of local and state government programs provided low-income tenants with money to help pay the rent during the pandemic. Some tenants, knowing they could not be evicted because of the state moratorium, opted to spend that money elsewhere.
“You’re always robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Taylor, of UB. “That’s a way of life. That's what you have to do to survive.”
“There were lots of people who got help initially, when COVID really did impact everything in a substantial way,” said Jean Bennett, director of housing and homeless services at Restoration Society, Inc. “They got six months worth of rent paid and then continued to not pay, and so they did receive assistance, but they ended up getting evicted anyway.”
Bennett, who oversees a number of housing and COVID-related programs, said during the pandemic she saw some low-income renters using the funds on other expenses, with some tenants not paying rents for up to two years while the moratorium protected them from eviction.
“It kind of lulled them into this false sense of security, like everything was going to be okay,” she said.
Bruce Koren, an attorney who represents landlords, said the moratorium made it easy for people to not pay their rent.
“You literally checked the box that COVID affected your financial status or ability to find additional housing and signed it and sent it into the court,” he said. “I had tenants walk in smiling with that declaration because they knew that they could keep coming back because the moratorium kept getting extended.”
Remote court contributing to evictions increase
City, town and village courts handling landlord-tenant disputes consolidated during the pandemic and operated remotely as the Erie County Landlord Tenant Hub Court.
“Rather than being at East Aurora on a Thursday night at 8:30 and West Seneca on a Friday night at seven, you simply call in to a court that covers the vast majority of evictions throughout a county at two o’clock in the afternoon,” said Andriette of Neighborhood Legal Services.
The consolidated court made it easier to bring eviction proceedings, which observers said partly explains the high number of eviction warrants issued in Erie County. Indeed, during its first six months of operation, the court had already handled 900 eviction cases.
“Most town and village courts hear evictions at most, one day, one time a week,” Koren said, “but now with HUB court, they’re hearing cases four days a week, which means you can handle a bigger volume.”
The court increased access to legal representation for tenants while expediting eviction hearings for landlords.
“Because this is a virtual court, landlords can also call in and it’s easier for landlords attorneys to make appearances as well, so I think cases get scheduled more quickly,” Andriette said. “So I think in some ways, the HUB court may be contributing to greater eviction numbers.”
Coming Friday: I'Jaz discusses her reporting on our Reporter's Notebook podcast.