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.
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.”
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.
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.