Housing

Illegal evictions are rising across the state, but landlords rarely face consequences

There’s a growing trend of landlords changing locks and shutting off utilities to get tenants out without going to court, tenant organizers say.

The eviction moratorium hasn’t stopped landlords from turning out tenants off the books.

The eviction moratorium hasn’t stopped landlords from turning out tenants off the books. Courtesy of HJ4A

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’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.

Tamel Anderson says his landlord locked him out of his Albany basement apartment. (Tamel Anderson)


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 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 evictions

Illegal evictions have largely escaped public scrutiny, in part because the 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 NYPD 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.

NEXT STORY: New York’s schools are getting an influx of funding. Parents want to make sure it’s spent responsibly.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.