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Issue of the Week
 
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Evictions

by Rebecca Webber

12 November 01

When a landlord-tenant dispute results in an eviction, the resulting scene is often far more terrible than Hollywood's version, in which the evicting official carries furniture out to the curb while the evicted tenant curses and frets on the sidewalk.

In 1985, a 56-year-old Bronx woman killed herself when a city marshal arrived to serve her eviction notice. The marshal heard a single shot after the woman closed the door.

In 1996, a city marshal called 911 for help evicting an ailing 82-year-old woman from her apartment in Astoria. The elderly tenant had been unable to pay her rent due to steep medical bills.

In late August of this year, a city marshal arrived in Bedford-Stuyvesant to evict a woman who owed her landlord about $14,000. The tenant allegedly attacked the marshal, beating him with an aluminum rod, dousing him with a flammable liquid, and setting him alight. The marshal died in the attack.

It was a story of almost incomprehensible savagery, and it promised to bring renewed attention to a process that nobody likes. But it was followed a few weeks later by an event of even more incomprehensible savagery, and New Yorkers quickly forgot.

When the city halted evictions in September, it was not because officials wanted to take a hard look at a dysfunctional process. It was because the terrorist attacks had created so many temporarily homeless New Yorkers, and because the courts, in something close to chaos, were not equipped to kick any more people out of their homes.

EVERYBODY LOSES

Evictions do not always have horrific outcomes, but the process is never pleasant for landlord or tenant. Housing court cases can drag on for many months, sometimes years. Tenants must navigate the lengthy legal process and attempt to satisfy their landlord's concerns or else lose their homes.

Landlords often lose out in eviction cases too. Yes, they can re-rent vacated apartment, usually at a higher price. But they also often lose the overdue rent - an average of six months' worth. A 1995 study by the American Economics Group found that New York City landlords lost about $145 million dollars in unpaid rent in a typical year. And this does not count the legal fees. "The last thing an owner in the city wants to do is go to court with the tenant. It's a losing situation either way," said Frank Ricci, director of governmental affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, the city's largest landlord group.

Still, landlords often take the first step toward eviction, filing about 300,000 such cases in housing court each year.

BEFORE THE BENCH

The vast majority of evictions, about 90 percent, stem from nonpayment of rent. The remainder include such situations as a tenant who has a pet illegally, or who is a nuisance to neighbors, or who occupies an apartment that the owner wants to live in himself.

It is a slow and complicated process, played out in housing court according to a process set down in Article 7 of New York State's Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law.

Most eviction actions filed by owners do not result in forcible legal eviction because tenants decide to pay up or move out. "It's a way to up the ante to let the tenant know that they are serious," said Ricci. "In most of those cases, they work out some agreement to begin paying. They might go to court one or two or three times, but most of those do not end up in eviction."

Both landlords and tenants avoid housing court, in part because both believe that in the courtroom, the deck is stacked against them.

"In housing court, 90 percent of landlords are represented by counsel, whereas less than 10 percent of tenants are, so the system becomes actively biased," said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. "What actually happens is that there are out-of-court settlements which are biased against the tenants. People are agreeing to payment schedules that they can't possibly adhere to. It happens all the time."

The Coalition counsels many desperate tenants through its eviction prevention program. "We're just flooded," said Markee. "We have to turn people away."

Funding for civil legal services was slashed by the Giuliani administration and the state senate, said Kenny Schaeffer of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, so poor tenants are almost never represented when they have their day in court. "It's like playing hockey against a professional and you don't have skates or a stick," he said.

Landlords, not surprisingly, see it differently. They believe that, legal representation or not, the court favors tenants.

"Judges often see themselves as administers of social justice rather than the law as it is written," Ricci asserted. "They decide they are not going to evict anyone because they don't want to contribute to homelessness. Judges have bent over backwards to deny owners apartments in the building on very obscure reasons because they don't want to evict anyone -- even though the intent of the law is very clear."

Some do believe that the system is fair in protecting the rights of both parties. "The owners are able to collect their rents and evict people as needed. The tenants get due process protection - notice that the petition has been filed, opportunities to pay rent, notice before the marshal shows up," said Joseph Burden, chair of the Housing Court Committee of the city bar association, whose members discuss and review the issues surrounding housing court.

BOOTED OUT

Landlords obtain eviction warrants in almost 40 percent of the cases they pursue. In the year 2000, housing court judges approved about 122,000 evictions.

"Statistically, the number of evictions and the number of filings have remained fairly constant over the past few years," said Jodi Harawitz, executive director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, which provides legal information for tenants. She believes that a class action lawsuit that allows families on public assistance to sue for greater rent subsidies has kept the number from rising in recent years.

Tenant advocates believe that the city's current housing situation - with high rents and increasing gentrification - gives owners a great financial motivation to evict. "The housing crisis has gone so deep that any vacant apartment is going to go for $2,000. So the incentive for landlords to evict people is more than it has ever been," said Schaeffer.

While a strong economy has kept the eviction rate fairly level over the past decade, the current economic downturn could cause it to soar.

During the Great Depression, many tenants found themselves unemployed and unable to pay rent. Some landlords lowered or even forgave rents. Others accepted labor in exchange for housing. But many tried to force non-paying tenants to leave. During 1932, city courts issued dispossess notices at two and three times pre-Depression levels. Then, as now, those who could not resolve their rent arrears, found themselves on the street.

It happens when a city marshal escorts tenants and their belongings out of the apartment and changes the lock. The marshals complete about 25,000 evictions each year, about one for every 5 eviction warrants issued by housing court judges. That is because most tenants facing immediate eviction vacate their home before the marshal arrives.

The contents of the apartment must be warehoused until the tenant can retrieve them, according to New York state law. For the tenant himself, there is no such safeguard.

No one tracks the movement of evicted families after the padlocking of the door, but tenant advocates believe that many initially move in with relatives or friends. "It's usually a pretty untenable situation because they are also usually poor people in crowded conditions," said Markee. "It becomes impossible to maintain and then they come to the shelter system."

About 17 percent of families utilizing the city's resources for the homeless arrive straight from their eviction, according to studies of the city's homeless population. Untold others end up in shelters when crowded post-eviction accommodations become unlivable.

Homeless advocates believe that emergency rent assistance from the city, "one-shot deals," should be easier to obtain. "It's very difficult for people to negotiate that system," said Markee. "It's going to cost the city $36,000 a year to put them up in a homeless shelter, and they might have rent arrears of just two or three thousand dollars."

A BITTER END

JoAnna Jones had lived in a homeless shelter before she moved into 50 New York Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant in June 1999. She was determined not to go back.

Virginia Smith, the owner of Jones' building, filed her first nonpayment suit against Jones in December of 1999. Jones paid up, but in June 2000, the two were back in court - with Jones owing Smith $4,900, or 7 months rent on her $700 apartment. Still, she fought the impending eviction, arguing that her nonpayment stemmed in part from Smith's failure to provide necessary services and repairs. The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development validated much of Jones' claim and ordered Smith to rectify the apartment's problems.

The legal battle dragged on for more than a year addressing continued nonpayment of rent, uncompleted repairs, attempted settlements and stayed evictions. But by August 2001, Jones owed Smith about $14,000 and her eviction notice was signed and ready for delivery. The city marshal serving the notice, Erskine G. Bryce, bore the brunt of Jones' violent frustration and anger at her eviction. Bryce died after a horrible struggle and Jones was charged in his death.

"Eviction is a terrible tragedy in human terms and economic terms," said Schaeffer. "It has a devastating impact."

Even as many of those displaced by the terrorist attacks move back into their homes, evictions have resumed in most parts of the city.

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