Like many New Yorkers, Rachelle Leconte has spent the last year trying to balance an impossible budget. Since losing her job as an overnight clerk at a Manhattan Hilton last March, the 38-year-old Brooklynite has been living off unemployment, coupons, and bulk food purchases. She’s calculated which bills she can put off paying an extra week, and how many times a month she can afford the subway trip to see her family.

Despite her exacting efforts, Leconte fell behind on her $739 monthly rent at the end of last year. She now lives in near-constant fear of losing a rare affordable apartment in the only city she’s ever known. “That feeling is continuous on a loop all the time,” Leconte said. “I get so afraid that someone is going to knock on my door and say you have to go.”

Across New York, as many as 1.2 million renters are at risk of eviction, according to a report from the National Council of State Housing Agencies. Though the federal government has funded a substantial rent relief program, the state has so far struggled to get existing funds to tenants in need. With the eviction moratorium set to expire on May 1st, many New York City renters now find themselves trapped under a mountain of debt, and struggling with the psychic toll of not knowing how long they’ll have a place to live.

“It wakes you up in the middle of the night,” said Sarah S., a former bartender, who asked that her name be withheld because she feared being blacklisted by landlords. She said her roommate left last March, sticking her with a lease that she couldn’t afford at a time when she couldn’t move. “Someone thinks I owe them $13,000. I've never even seen $13,000.”

For Beatrice Camacho, a single mother living in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, the debt has left her feeling hopeless and despondent. She lost both of her jobs cleaning Manhattan offices at the start of the pandemic, but received only $183 in weekly unemployment payments — a fraction of her previous income, she said, that left her the choice of “eating or paying rent.”

She now owes $14,000 in unpaid rent, and faces a pending court case with her landlord. Lately, she’s been thinking about what it would mean to return to one of the city’s homeless shelters, where she’d lived six years earlier, when her daughter was 2. “I do not want to put my daughter through this again,” Camacho told Gothamist. “I just want to move forward and get back on my feet.”

Beatrice Camacho with her daughter

Beatrice Camacho with her daughter

Beatrice Camacho with her daughter
Provided to Gothamist

A patchwork of state law and federal funding should, in theory, protect struggling tenants from such worst-case scenarios. Between President Biden’s latest stimulus package and the one Trump passed in December, New York has roughly $2.4 billion in federal rent relief to dole out across the state.

The process for distributing those funds will be decided in the next week, as part of the budget deal that Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers are now finalizing. Under one proposal, renters who made up to 80% of an area's median income in the 2020 calendar year and experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19 would be eligible for aid. Preference will be given to those making below 50% of the median income and those who apply in tandem with their landlord.

State Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the chamber’s Housing Committee, told Gothamist earlier this week that the program could “pay virtually all of the rent arrears that have built up in the entire state.”

But several struggling tenants said they were either unaware of the program, or had little faith in their ability to benefit. Camacho said she was previously denied by the state’s rent relief program because her ex-partner, who no longer lives with her, had received a Section 8 voucher. “It feels like I’m all alone,” she said.

Housing experts from across the political spectrum have called on the state to unlock those funds as soon as possible and without significant barriers to entry. Additional layers of bureaucracy, according to both tenant and landlord groups, will make the program harder to access for some of New York’s neediest renters.

“If we can get all this money out very quickly that will save a lot of the affordable housing stock and relieve a tremendous amount of stress and concern on the part of tenants,” Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord lobbying group, told Gothamist.

He predicted it would take six months to get the first tranche of aid out to tenants. In the meantime, landlords will likely begin sending out eviction notices to indebted tenants once the moratorium lifts “in order to protect themselves,” Strasburg said.

As with the pandemic, the impact of those cases will not be distributed equally. According to a new analysis by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, landlords are filing eviction cases 3.6 times faster in zip codes with the highest COVID-19 death rates, where residents are primarily people of color.

The city’s housing court has also seen a recent surge in hardship declaration forms, which postpone eviction proceedings until May 1st. Of the more than 25,000 households that have submitted the forms, the Bronx has seen the highest rate of declaration forms, a court spokesperson said.

In Kingsbridge, which has one of the city’s highest rates of eviction cases, Camacho said that many of her neighbors were already living with the looming threat of eviction. Last week, she ran into a woman in her building who was moving out because she couldn’t pay rent and feared the prospect of housing court. The woman planned to stay with her sister for a bit, and after that she wasn’t sure.

“There’s always someone else out there struggling more,” Camacho told Gothamist. “I pray for everyone. This has been a bad year.”