Tapped-Out Tenants Take Charge as Landlords Pursue End Runs Around Eviction Moratorium

Yves here. THE CITY provides on-the-ground reporting on the war between landlords and tenants during a supposed eviction freeze. This is a disheartening view of what many renters are facing across the US, such as landlords engaging in illegal tactics like entering and seizing property or letting other people take over the rental. One reason the landlords feel so emboldened even in New York, which has strong tenant protections and a specialized housing court, is that the housing court is barely in session due to Covid, and has a considerable backlog on top of that.

Shorter: if tenants are subject to unprecedented harassment in a renter-friendly city like New York, imagine what it’s like in the rest of the US.

By Allison Dikanovic, Peter Senzamici and Christine Chung. Originally published by THE CITY on November 12, 2020

Dexter Lendor and Delene Ahye attend “stoop court” with neighbors and activists from the Crown Heights Tenants Union in the basement of their Prospect Lefferts Gardens apartment on Oct. 30, 2020. Peter Senzamici/THE CITY

Dexter Lendor and Delene Ahye sat on the basement stairs inside their Prospect Lefferts Garden apartment building, eyes fixed on an iPhone propped up on a railing, when the judge told them they won the first step of their case to sue their landlord.

After a long few months, relief washed over the couple’s faces at the thought of finally getting needed repairs to the building at 22 Hawthorne St., with a court order to correct all housing code violations.

Lendor and Ahye weren’t alone when they heard the news. Neighbors and members of the Crown Heights Tenant Union sat with them on the stairs — masked up and fists in the air, holding signs that read “cancel rent.”

The tenant union organizers call it “stoop court” — a new effort to support tenants while Housing Court remains virtual. The organizers gather small groups to meet outside of a tenant’s home to appear on screen for the hearing together.

Since rain was pouring when Lendor and Ahye’s hearing was about to start, the group pivoted to the basement stairs.

“We want to show that these tenants are not alone,” said Sarah Lazur, an organizer with Crown Heights Tenant Union. “They’re supported by their fellow tenants in the area and people who care about the prospect of their neighbor being potentially displaced or mistreated.”

This stoop court session was part of a groundswell of efforts by renters around New York City to head off landlords who’ve attempted to eject tenants despite an ongoing pandemic-driven moratorium on evictions.

By filing cases alleging landlord harassment or illegal lockouts and rallying housing activist groups around them, the tenants are doing all they can to keep their homes.

Ahye said she hopes the next phase of the case, a scheduled hearing with a different judge, will bring an end to what she alleges has been unrelenting harassment since earlier this year from landlord Seyed Moussavi.

Her interactions, she said, have been mostly with someone named Kenny Banks, who claims to be the property manager.

“He’s trying to get us out,” said Ahye, who had filed a complaint about illegal construction that caused the Department of Buildings to issue a stop work order in August after her ceiling collapsed on her while she was cooking breakfast.

“I can’t just get up and get another apartment without any money,” she said.

Banks stated in a filing submitted to the court that he denied all allegations that he harassed Lendor — and said that it is Lendor who is a nuisance to neighbors in the building.

‘Intolerable Conditions’

Lendor and Ahye haven’t been able to pay rent since July, when, Lendor said and Banks confirmed in his court filing, Banks dismissed Lendor from his job as superintendent of the building.

Ahye said Banks has been showing up to the apartment ordering them to leave, taping letters to their door telling them to stop calling city agencies to report violations.

Banks also told them he’d locked some of Lendor’s belongings in a room in the basement — just feet away from where they gathered for stoop court — and would open the room only once Lendor and Ahye agreed to move out, the couple said.

As the economic fallout from the coronavirus deepens and government aid ebbs, more than 1.3 million New Yorkers statewide are at risk of eviction, falling short on rent owed by more than $2 billion, according to an analysis of census data by the investment bank Stout Risius Ross LLC.

Landlords who once might have turned to Housing Court to pursue an eviction action found the process frozen for months beginning in March as the pandemic took hold. With court proceedings resumed beginning last month, judges are only now starting to hear cases that were already pending.

New York’s top court administrator said upon reopening the courts that he expects COVID-safety measures to significantly slow scheduling and outcomes.

Tenant advocates contend that many landlords are taking matters into their own hands — pressuring tenants to leave on their own.

“We’re seeing a whole new extremely disturbing level of tenant harassment,” said Shekar Krishnan, chief program officer at Communities Resist, a tenant legal services and advocacy organization. “What they’re doing is basically creating really intolerable conditions to get tenants to move out.”

Landlords Snap

Tenants living in Queens and Brooklyn told THE CITY about losing electricity for weeks, being verbally harassed by their landlords, returning home to find their possessions gone, and being suddenly asked to pay hundreds more in rent.

Krishnan said that extreme harassment tactics — such as landlords moving in fake tenants who deliberately make domestic havoc — are on the rise, largely because some building owners are “banking on that the laws won’t be enforced and that tenants will be afraid and that they can get them out this way.”

“When you have tenants already isolated in their homes and already so much fear because you can’t pay rent, these kinds of tactics capitalize on that,” Krishnan said.

Tenant advocates protest looming eviction proceedings at Brooklyn Housing Court, Aug. 6, 2020. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Some tenant organizers acknowledge that the COVID economic crisis is taking its own toll on landlords, creating financial pressures that owners find intolerable and spur them to turn on tenants.

“There are a ton of landlords who are at their wits end because they have no way to pay their mortgages or bank loans, and now we’re causing more stress because we’re taking them to court to do their repairs, and they feel like the only option is to get the tenants out,” said Esteban Girón, an organizer with Crown Heights Tenant Union who helps put together stoop court sessions.

He said the desperation will persist if the state Legislature doesn’t pass a bill to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic, which would provide many landlords as well as tenants with financial relief.

Queens Legal Services told THE CITY that the citywide Legal Services hotline has seen a roughly 37% increase in calls for housing help since COVID besieged New York City, compared to the same period last year — receiving more than 7,500 calls in all between March and October 2020.

Harassment “has really heightened throughout the pandemic since the court system has not been an avenue that has been accessible,” said Marika Dias, tenant attorney and director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center. “There are without a doubt landlords who are trying to find other pathways that are less costly and fit with their business plans.”

Suing Landlords Online

Some tenants, like Lendor and Ahye, have taken their landlords to court. Though eviction proceedings have been slowed, courts allowed emergency cases dealing with lockouts, harassment and repairs even when the rest of Housing Court was on pandemic pause.

From January to mid October, tenants filed 996 cases across the city complaining of illegal apartment lockouts, in addition to 937 harassment cases, data provided by the state Office of Court Administration shows.

Those numbers are down by about 300 each from the volume of such cases filed in 2019. But Krishnan said a drop is not surprising given the pandemic’s complications of court procedures — and that most such situations never reach court in the first place.

“The number of cases that make it to court versus the actual instances of tenant harassment, there’s always a huge discrepancy,” Krishnan said. “That’s always the case, especially in a time like COVID, when the processes of the courts have changed and are even more confusing.”

Tenant advocates hold a solidarity rally against a landlord’s efforts to evict residents from a rent- stabilized Fort Greene, Brooklyn, apartment building, Sept. 11, 2020. Peter Senzamici/THE CITY

Many of those filings have arrived in court via the data-driven housing advocacy group JustFix.nyc. Since April, tenants have used JustFix’s free online tool to file more than 1,200 emergency lawsuits against landlords for circumstances such as harassment and gas and heat outages, without having to step foot in court, the nonprofit said.

“This eliminates the need to print out or fill out physical court forms or go to the court in person,” said JustFix executive director Georges Clement.

About 500 New Yorkers have filed cases that include harassment claims through the website, more than 100 of which also cited illegal lockouts, Clement added.

If a case is viable, tenants are contacted by their borough’s Housing Court clerk and assigned a lawyer by the court. JustFix provides guidelines on how to notify landlords that they are being served.

Trespassing Claims

At 22 Hawthorne St., the relief following the virtual hearing didn’t last long.

Moments after Lendor signed off the video call, a man pulled up, double-parked a silver Kia Soul and stormed toward the building, surprised to see a group of people.

“What are y’all in my building for?” said the man who Lendor said had been calling himself the property manager, Kenny Banks. During the virtual hearing a few minutes earlier, a judge found Banks was not an officially registered agent of the landlord.

After a heated exchange in the dark basement stairwell among Banks, the tenants and the stoop court attendees about who had a right to be there, everyone filed outside.

Banks declared he was calling the police. He told THE CITY that the tenant organizers were trespassing and that Lendor, the nephew of the building’s previous owner, had been fired as the superintendent and ordered to move out.

“Nobody’s harassing nobody,” Banks said. “He’s the one that’s doing the harassment. So what can I do, man.”

When asked about the ceiling collapse in Lendor’s kitchen last August, Banks accused Lendor of intentionally ripping it apart himself, causing it to collapse. When asked for evidence, Banks said, “Oh, I got the proof,” but he then said the alleged pictures were on another phone he left at home.

As the arriving police officers spoke with Lendor and the tenant organizers, Banks called the building’s owner, Moussavi, who bought the building from Lendor’s aunt in 2015.

Over speakerphone, Moussavi repeated Banks’ accusations and told THE CITY that Lendor had moved temporarily into a room once it became vacant. But temporary became permanent, he said.

“We cannot get rid of him because of COVID-19,” Moussavi said. “It’s not easy to get him out.”

Kenny Banks (r.) argues with tenant activists in the presence of officers from the 81st Precinct, Oct. 30, 2020. Peter Senzamici/THE CITY

The police ordered Banks to unlock the basement room and allow Lendor to collect his property. Banks told the officers from the 81st Precinct that those keys were back home and he promised to return the next morning to comply. According to Joel Feingold, an organizer with Crown Heights Tenant Union, he has yet to do so as of Wednesday.

Great Depression Inspiration

The tenant organizers did not anticipate an in-person confrontation when planning stoop court at 22 Hawthorne St. But showing up in numbers to defend tenants from potential harassment has increasingly become an organizing strategy for tenant groups throughout the city, organizers say.

“We’ve had to do more trainings on eviction defenses and physically showing up in rapid response to either an eviction attempt or something that seems like an escalation toward an eviction attempt,” said Lazur of Crown Heights Tenant Union.

Tenant organizers and housing advocates in Brooklyn started a group in the summer to focus exclusively on protecting tenants from harassment and eviction, calling the effort Brooklyn Eviction Defense.

The concept of eviction defense draws from organizing tactics during the Great Depression when people would physically resist evictions and block sheriffs from removing neighbors’ belongings from their homes.

“In the 1930s, those were mostly legal evictions,” said Holden Taylor, an organizer with Brooklyn Eviction Defense. “A lot of our focus with the moratoriums has shifted to illegal evictions, as landlords are getting antsy.”

Taylor said an eviction defense today can take different forms — from having volunteers guard a stoop to make sure a landlord doesn’t change the locks to educating tenants on their rights.

Ahye reached out to the Crown Heights Tenant Union and city agencies to report the alleged harassment, but organizers and lawyers say that many vulnerable tenants aren’t as savvy.

“So many tenants don’t know their rights and leave because they don’t know their rights, and that’s the scariest thing,” Krishnan said. “They should know that no one can force them out of their home through any of these methods. They have the right to stay in their home and it is illegal for their landlord to force them out, full stop.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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12 comments

  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    Western liberalism’s descent into chaos.
    1920s/2000s – neoclassical economics, high inequality, high banker pay, low regulation, low taxes for the wealthy, robber barons (CEOs), reckless bankers, globalisation phase
    1929/2008 – Wall Street crash
    1930s/2010s – Global recession, currency wars, trade wars, austerity, rising nationalism and extremism
    1940s – World war.

    Right wing populist leaders are what we should be expecting at this stage.

    This neoliberalism isn’t very new, is it?
    It was supposed to be, and they did try to learn from past mistakes, but the Mont Pelerin Society went round in a circle and got back to pretty much where they started.

    Why does it always go so badly wrong?
    It equates making money with creating wealth and people try and make money in the easiest way possible, which doesn’t actually create any wealth.
    In 1984, for the first time in American history, “unearned” income exceeded “earned” income.
    The American have lost sight of what real wealth creation is, and are just focussed on making money.
    You might as well do that in the easiest way possible.
    It looks like a parasitic rentier capitalism because that is what it is.

    Bankers make the most money when they are driving your economy into a financial crisis.
    What they are doing is really an illusion; they are just pulling future spending power into today.
    The 1920s roared at the expense of an impoverished 1930s.
    Japan roared on the money creation of real estate lending in the 1980s, they spent the next 30 years repaying the debt they had built up in the 1980s and the economy flat-lined.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YTyJzmiHGk

    At the end of the 1920s, the US was a ponzi scheme of inflated asset prices.
    The use of neoclassical economics and the belief in free markets, made them think that inflated asset prices represented real wealth accumulation.
    Wakey, wakey time.

    We are building castles in the air again, thinking inflated asset prices are accumulated wealth.

    We keep trying.
    Real estate – the wealth is there and then it’s gone
    1990s – UK, US (S&L), Canada (Toronto), Scandinavia, Japan, Philippines, Thailand
    2000s – Iceland, Dubai, US (2008), Vietnam
    2010s – Ireland, Spain, Greece, India
    Get ready to put Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Hong Kong on the list.

    With a BTL portfolio, I can get the capital gains on a number of properties and extract the hard earned income of generation rent at the same time.
    It’s such a cushy number, making all that money and there is hardly any work involved
    What is there not to like?
    We would need to know what real wealth creation is to see the problem.
    No one does, and they can’t.

    In the 1930s, they pondered over where all that wealth had gone to in 1929 and realised inflating asset prices doesn’t create real wealth, they came up with the GDP measure to track real wealth creation in the economy.
    The transfer of existing assets, like stocks and real estate, doesn’t create real wealth and therefore does not add to GDP.
    The real wealth creation in the economy is measured by GDP.
    Real wealth creation involves real work producing new goods and services in the economy.

    Reply
    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Who would want to hide what real wealth creation is?
      Me
      I hate hard work
      I’ve got this really cushy number transferring existing financial assets around

      Well, yes, but who else?
      Economists do identify where real wealth creation in the economy occurs, but this is a most inconvenient truth as it reveals many at the top don’t actually create any wealth.
      This is the problem.
      Much of their money comes from wealth extraction rather than wealth creation, and they need to get everyone thoroughly confused so we don’t realise what they are really up to.

      Reply
    2. Robert G Richards II

      Care Act payments to renters only put the govt in tremendous debt and leaves landlords holding the bag.
      Instead of payments to renters, the govt should freeze mortgage payments, allow interest for each of those payments to accrue and add to the principle. When the crises abates, the payments may resume with the interest accrued covered by extra payment on backend of loan.
      Having the landlords property protected, the government can now decree no evictions to protect the tenant and no huge debt added to government.
      How much have these Cares Act payments increased the national debt, 3x, 4x if another round of relief goes through ?
      WWI created a large debt and the max tax rate went to 90%. WWII was similar at 80-88%, Vietnam 77%.
      How will this affect the withdraws from your 401k when your plans were built around the 28% tax rate you were delaying payment.
      But in the more immediate, there are profiteers in every war. There are opportunists at work in this corona crisis. If the landlords are not protected from foreclosure when the crisis abates, this could be the largest land grab in us history since the mortgage securities scam of 20@8 where the subprime loans continued but bank halted commercial loans. Construction projects came to a halt all across the country and hard working plumbers, carpenters, heavy equipment operators, electricians lost there jobs and their newly acquired homes were confiscated by Wall Street. The poor did not cause the mortgage security crisis and corona will not cause the next land grab. It will be profiteers abusing the govt response to corona.
      Put people back to work.
      Restrict activities. Disallow interstate travel unless an activity considered essential. Vacation is not essential. And if you need one, take it in your own state. Keep flitting about and this virus will mutate just in time to make any vaccine useless.
      Be well. Be safe. Be healthy.

      Reply
  2. Harry

    I have been a landlord. A tough business and really not for the faint of heart. I have no idea why these tenants are putting up with this kind of bullshit from landlords. Make multiple copies of your lease. Keep one copy to hand. In the event of a landlord locking you out take lease to police station. Show lease. Police will accompany you back to the property to break back in. Entirely legal. Landlords actions are illegal and will eventually be subject to sanction in court when the housing courts reopen.

    I would imagine the main problem is intimidation, but Im surprised the tenants dont organize to deal with that. So I dont entirely get it. Still, Im pretty sure these tenants will eventually get briefed by someone who does know what they are doing.

    Reply
    1. Intelligent yet Idiot

      If you have been a landlord you should know that paying rent is the crux of the leasing agreement. So you are advocating for people to seize the property while the landlord keeps paying taxes and utilities?
      Why don’t you take one of those tenants you care so much in your own property to live rent free?
      If the tenant doesn’t pay the rent, the redress he will find in court is limited. Yeah, he can stay there two to three months more but will eventually be evicted. And he wont be able to rent another place for a very very long time. And, no, its not landlord’s fault.

      Reply
  3. redleg

    Big question, that I haven’t yet seen addressed: when the evictions happen, who benefits?
    Seems to me that having mass vacancies in this economy should drive rents much lower, and even then result in more long-term vacancies, which brings on upkeep problems, etc.
    Its clear that eventually banksters would buy the distressed properties, but in the short to medium term evicting these people hurts everyone involved.

    Reply
      1. Thomas

        It’s a coordination problem. On an individual basis, an eviction helps the landlord re-rent the unit and hopefully earn some income that will cover expenses associated with the property (real estate taxes, property insurance, repairs and maintenance, etc.). However, as you correctly point out, on a massive scale, a series of evictions will increase vacancy rates and force everyone to drop rents.

        Most landlords are not the sharpest people and they merely want to collect their income and do the bare minimum necessary to upkeep the property (and maybe dump some extra capital in to increase rents every few years). Save for large landlords who own thousands of units, most landlords are not in the business of coordinating evictions. Recall that even before the eviction moratorium, it was large private investors who signed a “pledge” not to evict anyone. However, there are obviously incentives to evict your own tenants if everyone else has pledged not to evict (you get to resolve your problem tenants and the market vacancy is stable), so there are incentives to re-neg on these arrangements:

        https://ny.curbed.com/2020/3/13/21179042/coronavirus-new-york-real-estate-evictions-landlords

        Reply
  4. Jeff N

    While searching for the cheapest rents in America (considering a very, very early retirement), I found this video about the state of Arkansas’ landlord-friendly laws.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9G2Pk2JZP-E
    “Arkansas is one of the worst places to be a renter in America. It is the only state in the US where tenants are treated as criminals for paying rent late and landlords are not required by law to maintain their properties.

    Its failure-to-vacate law lets landlords give tenants a 10-day eviction notice if they are even one day overdue. Tenants who can’t or won’t leave within that span face fines for every day they remain on the property and up to 90 days in jail.”

    Reply
  5. Tom

    I disagree with the premise that tenants are treated worse in other parts of the country than New York. Even before COVID it was almost impossible to evict tenants. There are reports of landlords starting eviction cases in Dec 2019 that still have not gone to court. In this kind of environment, landlords have almost no recourse and the strong legal tenant protections coupled with weak enforcement actually foster an environment where landlords are encouraged to break the law in order to keep generating income.

    Look at the rent stabilization laws. The city has lost 300k rent stabilized units since the 1990s because the Department of Buildings does not enforce stabilization. If you’re a speculative property investor, there’s a strong incentive to buy regulated units and illegally de-convert them. This in spite of the fact that New York has “strong” tenant protections!

    Reply

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