Connecting state and local government leaders
Some landlords are changing locks and shutting off utilities to get tenants out without going to court, tenant organizers say.
This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.
Tamel Anderson thought he had finally found himself an apartment in a nice part of town. This spring, he moved into a place on Albany, New York’s Ten Broeck Street, just a few blocks from downtown. It was a basement apartment, and overpriced, Anderson thought, but it was better than nothing, and Anderson agreed to move in without a lease until some repair work was done, he said.
But a little over a month later, Anderson said, the landlord began taking a series of increasingly severe steps to get him out of the apartment.
For the past eighteen months, renters in New York and across the country have been protected by a variety of emergency measures meant to keep people in their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic. Officially, these protections have slowed evictions in the state to a trickle: In New York City, for example, marshals have executed just 72 evictions since the start of the pandemic—only a few more than they carried out every day in 2017.
But off the books, a very different story has been unfolding as landlords, sometimes frustrated by the eviction moratorium, take matters into their own hands. Tenant organizers across the state say there’s a dire, and growing, trend of landlords changing locks, shutting off utilities and taking other drastic measures to get tenants out—and court data shows that few of these landlords face legal consequences.
In Anderson’s case, the landlord’s efforts started with a text saying he needed to leave, Anderson said. He refused. A week later, he said, he came home from work to find the locks changed, the gas and electricity shut off and his belongings thrown out. Anderson called the police, who he said ordered the landlord to let him back in the apartment.
About a week later, over Memorial Day weekend, Anderson said he woke up to find his power out again. He said he heard banging on his door—the landlord. Anderson tried to leave, but he said the landlord became aggressive, put his hands around his neck, and started to choke him. He managed to extricate himself and, once he left, filed a police report.
This time, Anderson said he had no choice but to leave the apartment. He spent the summer between hotels and a friend’s car, racking up expenses that left him falling behind on payments for a storage unit, which he’s now locked out of too. He remains homeless more than four months later.
Reached by Route Fifty's sister publication City & State, the landlord said Anderson had never been his tenant, and that he’d allowed Anderson to stay in the apartment for just a week, for free. Documents reviewed by City & State show that Anderson sent the landlord $1,000 in late March, and that Anderson registered to vote at the address in early May. (The landlord said that he never asked for the $1,000 and hadn’t noticed that he’d gotten it. He refunded the money in May, including “deposit back” in the message accompanying the transfer.)
Over the summer, Anderson received an order of protection against the landlord over the alleged assault, which was reviewed by City & State along with police reports from the two altercations and hospital documents. The landlord denied ever putting his hands around Anderson’s neck, and the case was dismissed in Albany City Criminal Court, according to a spokesperson, provided that the landlord is not rearrested in the next six months.
When Anderson filed a suit against the landlord in civil court, the court ruled in Anderson’s favor, requiring the landlord to pay him $2,260, according to court documents. But Anderson said he still hasn’t gotten the money, and little has come out of his efforts to pursue the case through the criminal justice system either.
Anderson called his case a “poster child” for illegal evictions—and tenant organizers say his situation is not unique.
Rising Numbers of Illegal Victions
Illegal evictions have largely escaped public scrutiny, in part because the New York laws designed to prevent them are rarely enforced. Police departments and prosecutors have largely ignored 2019 reforms that made it a misdemeanor to evict someone without a court order, as well as explicit, repeated guidance from the state attorney general to enforce the law.
Just 25 landlords faced charges for illegally evicting a tenant in 2020, according to New York state court data released this summer. Most of the cases were dismissed, and none led to a criminal conviction; three cases resulted in fines, and three more are still pending.
Tenant groups say that’s because law enforcement often doesn’t take illegal eviction complaints seriously.
“The police are not helpful when our clients call and they say, ‘I’ve been locked out,’” said Sateesh Nori, attorney in charge at the Queens neighborhood office of the Legal Aid Society. “Technically, the police are supposed to say to the landlord, open the door and go to court if you want your tenant out … But too often, it’s our clients who actually end up in jail.”
Meghan Zickl, tenant advocate at PUSH Buffalo, describes a similar picture on the other side of the state.
“I’ve seen a lot of tenants displaced unlawfully, simply because they can be threatened, and it’s really hard to keep up with what your rights are,” Zickl said. Tenants don’t always feel comfortable calling the police in such situations, she said, but even when they do, they don’t always find help forthcoming.
“I know that tenants have called the police and it’s actually hit or miss whether they’ll actually show up, and then if they do show up, it’s another coin toss about whether or not they’re up to date on the law,” Zickl said.
City & State contacted prosecutors in ten of the state’s most populous counties, including the five boroughs of New York City. Of those who responded, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office reported the highest number of prosecutions: a total of 17 since 2019, including three cases in 2020 and seven cases this year. Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz’s office said it had prosecuted no such cases. The district attorney in Nassau County listed three cases since last year; in Monroe county, which includes Rochester, three cases since August of this year; and in Erie county, which includes Buffalo, one case this year. (These figures largely accorded with the 2020 court data, though there were slight discrepancies.)
City & State also contacted police departments in the state’s five largest cities. Only two responded (the New York Police Department and Yonkers Police Department), and neither listed any arrests for unlawful eviction, although the 2020 court data suggests that the NYPD has carried out at least 16 such arrests.
Data on illegal lockouts is hard to come by, since most go unreported, but tenant advocates say they dwarf the number of prosecutions. Nori said Legal Aid receives about a dozen complaints of lockouts a week in the borough of Queens alone. In some cases, the tenants facing such evictions are living in informal apartments in the first place, including basement apartments, he said.
Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable, Nori said, as many fear they could jeopardize their status if they complain. But advocates say illegal evictions affect a wide swath of people across the state, especially people of color – like Anderson, who is Black.
And the problem is getting worse, advocates report. K. Michelle Arthur, executive director of United Tenants of Albany, said the group has received as many calls about illegal lockouts in the past six weeks as it had in the previous seven or eight months.
Ritti Singh, spokesperson for the City-Wide Tenants Union of Rochester, said the practice is on the rise there, too. Lately, she said, the group has been receiving calls every week alleging illegal lockouts, including one from a woman who was in the hospital when her landlord changed the locks.
Mosunmola Ojo, staff attorney at the Tenant Defense Project, also based in Rochester, says her group has logged 59 complaints of illegal lockouts or utility shutoffs since opening its hotline in August 2020, including seven last month alone. But she cautioned that such numbers are very approximate, since the Tenant Defense Project is only one of the groups in the area that tenants might call – if they complain at all.
Singh likewise stressed that such complaints represent “a tiny fraction of what the real picture is,” and that landlords typically don’t need to go so far as a lockout to get someone out.
“Even the threat of an illegal lockout is a crime,” Singh told City & State. “But most people don’t know this. And often just the threat is effective enough.”
Such threats belong to a wide range of tactics landlords use to push tenants out. The tactics vary in legality, but what they have in common is that they almost entirely escape the watch of the courts.
“There is so much displacement that’s happening right now,” said Genevieve Rand, an organizer with the Ithaca Tenants Union and housing campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York. “Displacement is the No. 1 most common factor that we see in the cases that have come through the tenants union this year, despite there being an eviction moratorium.”
Rand uses the umbrella term “displacement” to encompass both court-ordered evictions and the various other ways landlords can force tenants to leave. Simplest among them, she says, is denying a new lease: Once a tenant is in a month-to-month arrangement, the landlord can raise the rent or ask them to leave at any time, provided they give adequate notice (ranging from 30 to 90 days, depending how long the tenant has lived in the home). This is the kind of displacement that organizers aim to stop by passing “good cause eviction” laws.
The Rent Stabilization Association, New York’s largest landlord group, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Slipping Through the Cracks
Anderson, for his part, has tried every avenue he can think of to get back into his home and recover the money he’s lost, from the police to local politicians to Legal Aid. It hasn’t helped, even though Anderson is one of the rare displaced tenants to have won a case in court.
Relying on his paralegal background, he filed the civil court paperwork himself. A spokesperson for Albany City Civil Court said that if the judgment remains unpaid, Anderson would have to pursue a further judgment in Albany County Court.
Such hurdles to enforcing the law, organizers say, cut to the heart of the problem tenants face as they navigate the patchwork of protections meant to keep them in their homes – both those created during the pandemic and those that predate it.
“There’s an old saying: a right without a remedy is no right at all,” said Singh, of the Rochester tenants union. Across New York today, many tenants are finding that the rights they have on paper aren’t matched by legal remedies, and are therefore all but meaningless.
Nori, of Legal Aid, says enforcement would need to be drastically stepped up for the threat of criminal penalties to deter landlords, or even make them aware of it in the first place.
“How many of these mom and pop landlords are even aware of the penalty? Are they following the latest on housing law in Albany? Probably not,” Nori said. “They’re just trying to make ends meet, pay the bills. That’s why they rented out a room in the first place, and the market is so tight that someone’s always willing to rent any space in New York.”
For Nori, this points to the deeper root of the problem: the shortage of affordable housing, which forces people out of the formal market and into more volatile situations in the first place.
Still, advocates say things would be much worse were it not for the protections currently in place. Singh cited a recent case where a Rochester tenant was able to walk her landlord back from the threat of a lockout simply by saying she knew the practice was a crime.
“Landlords do rely on people not knowing their rights, so the more people know these things, I think that can be a powerful deterrent,” Singh said.
Arthur, of United Tenants of Albany, credits state and federal moratoriums as well as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) with preventing a much larger tide of pandemic-era evictions.
“Illegal lockouts are still the minority,” Arthur said. “It’s growing, but landlords aren’t using it in numbers that rival evictions going to court.”
Court-ordered evictions could become a greater concern again after January 15, when the latest version of the state’s eviction moratorium expires. Eviction filings have slowed but not stopped during the pandemic, with nearly 109,000 filed statewide in 2020 and 51,000 so far this year, court data shows. This could add up to huge numbers of warrants once courts resume processing them in earnest – especially factoring in the more than 10,000 warrants still pending from before the pandemic.
In the meantime, many tenants are slipping through the cracks of the legal system, and left to fend for themselves in an often pitiless rental market. Anderson said that since being forced to leave his home, he has been hearing more and more stories of vulnerable people facing situations like his, and has lost faith in authorities’ ability to do anything about it.
“The city’s just talking about this moratorium stuff,” Anderson said. “Behind the scenes, this is what’s taking place.”
New York Focus is an independent investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.