Some renters in New York City return home to find that their door locks have been changed or their personal belongings have been disposed of.
In extreme cases, they have been harassed or assaulted when landlords try to force them to vacate.
Housing advocates are sounding the alarm as they see an increase in illegal evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the city’s eviction moratorium set to expire on Saturday, Sateesh Nori said he and other advocates don’t know how much worse it will get because the moratorium essentially eliminated legal evictions.
Nori, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s office in Queens, represents people who have been illegally evicted in housing court. One of her clients lost her job as a consultant for the biotech company Immunotec when the pandemic hit, and paying rent became difficult. Eventually, she had to stop paying, Nori said.
The client, whose last name is Solis but did not want her first name used for privacy reasons, has a civil case pending in state Supreme Court against her landlord, Elizabeth Camelo, and her son, Elizabeth Camelo. Louis Acevedo. Solis alleges that he and his wife were harassed and threatened, and that Acevedo assaulted him. A few days after the alleged assault, the locks were changed while he and his wife were away, he said.
Camelo’s attorney, Nick Mattia, said in a statement that she would not comment because of the pending litigation “despite her desire to tell her side of events.”
“There are at least two sides to any story, and my client is confident that when given the opportunity to present the facts to the Court, she will ultimately be vindicated,” he said in the statement.
The attorney for Luis Acevedo, Ronald Hart, did not respond to a request for comment. In court documents available online, Acevedo denies the allegations against him.
Solis brought two cases against his landlord and her son to housing court: for locking him out and for alleged harassment. He won the lockout case but lost the latter.
Solis represents a large part of the tenant population in these types of cases — people living in low-income neighborhoods who are originally from a different country, where English isn’t their first language, Nori said.
“They’re invisible and they’re transient … and the law doesn’t recognize that,” he said.
Nori said the New York City Police Department does not like to get involved in these disputes, instead telling the tenants to fight it out in housing court. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
The department’s patrol guide says uniformed officers must take one of three actions when there is probable cause for an illegal eviction: prepare a citation and serve it; make an arrest; or refer evicted tenants who cannot secure temporary housing to the city’s Department of Homeless Services.
The lack of police help in such cases is a national problem, said Bruce Marks, CEO and co-founder of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America.
“Sheriffs are not supportive … so these landlords can basically do whatever they want, with impunity,” he said.
After the pandemic-driven federal moratorium ended on July 31, Marks said, a large wave of renters sought help with eviction cases, prompting his organization to launch a team of economic justice advocates to deal with specifically illegal evictions.
The group now has 35 such advocates across the country helping more than 30,000 renters, with about 20 percent involving illegal eviction cases, he said.
Marks said he and other advocates are seeing renters being kicked out of their homes for owing thousands of dollars in rent or by corporate landlords paying them.
“They don’t see the tenant as a human being, they see him as a number, as a way to make more money,” he said.
Nori said a minimum housing rights standard for tenants could address many of the issues.
“It’s about the question of whether housing is a human right… you have a right to education and you have a right to freedom of thought,” he said. “Should having a home be part of that?”