City Councilmember Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn) is introducing a package of bills that aims to curb illegal evictions, citing THE CITY’s reporting on tenants locked out of their apartments by landlords.
Titled the Stop Illegal Evictions Act, the four bills Nurse intends to introduce Thursday would increase penalties on building owners who illegally remove tenants and widen who can bring unlawful eviction cases in Housing Court.
Nurse also wants the City Council to urge the state legislature to pass a law to ensure that unlawful eviction cases brought by tenants are heard within five days.
Landlords who want to remove tenants for nonpayment of rent, illegal occupancy or lease violations have to go to Housing Court, prove their case and obtain an eviction order. Any other evictions are illegal, according to tenant lawyers.
Last year, THE CITY reported that the NYPD rarely enforced the city’s illegal eviction law, even though landlords who evict tenants by harassment or changing the locks can be arrested, issued a summons, and go to jail for up to a year.
Nurse said the police rarely assisted her office or constituents when tenants reported their landlords had locked them out of their homes.
“It is our experience that almost every time, officers are not fully trained in how to protect tenants during an unlawful eviction or illegal lockout,” she said.
The NYPD has made just 12 arrests for unlawful eviction this year when that crime was the top charge listed at arraignment, according to state court data.
Meanwhile, New York City tenants have filed 615 residential illegal lockout cases in Housing Court this year, according to state data obtained by the Housing Data Coalition in collaboration with the Right to Counsel Coalition, which advocate on behalf of tenants.
Tenants in Nurse’s northeast Brooklyn district have filed 167 illegal lockout cases in Housing Court in 2023 so far, according to Council research.
“There’s almost zero punishment for a landlord who has been found to be illegally evicting a tenant,” said Nurse, whose package currently has seven Council co-sponsors out of 51 members.
The Council bills come as a proposed state measure that aims to protect tenants from eviction, known as the “Good Cause” bill, has so far failed to move in Albany. A separate measure that would create a new state housing voucher subsidy program is also stalled.
Good Cause would limit the range of reasons landlords could use to pursue an eviction, noted Joe Loonam, housing campaign coordinator at the advocacy group VOCAL-NY, which provided input on Nurse’s bills.
“We really needed the state government to step up and give us more, not less” said Loonam. “And unfortunately, that’s not what happened.”
State law allows any legal apartment occupant to bring lockout cases in Housing Court, said Michael Grinthal, who helped draft the bills and is an attorney at Take Root Justice, a legal services provider.
But, Grinthal said, Housing Court judges are still throwing out cases alleging lockouts — including those with people whose possessions are thrown on the street — if they are brought by subletters or those in informal arrangements without leases, who do not meet the strictest legal definition of “tenant.”
“That’s a huge problem because those are the people most likely to be illegally evicted,” he said.
One of Nurse’s bills gets around that by allowing any lawful occupant to use the city’s harassment law, not state law, to bring unlawful eviction cases in Housing Court.
It also prevents Housing Court from throwing out illegal lockout cases if judges believe that the tenant might be legally evicted down the road, a scenario that happens “all the time” according to Grinthal.
Another bill enlists the city’s Certification of No Harassment pilot program, which requires landlords with harassment violations to go through strict review in order to obtain building permits for major renovations. It would expand the program to include buildings where a court found an owner illegally evicted someone.
A third measure would increase civil penalties for landlords who’ve committed an illegal eviction — up to $20,000 per eviction and up to $1,000 a day for up to one year until a landlord allows an occupant back into their apartment.
The bill also prohibits owners who courts found committed an unlawful eviction from using any city tax exemption, abatement or subsidy for five years.
Owners found responsible for illegal eviction must also set aside new, low-income housing in order to obtain a no harassment certification to move forward with any major construction, said Grinthal. Victims of that landlord’s unlawful eviction in would get first dibs on those units, according to the bill.
The fourth bill calls on the state legislature and governor to amend state law so that all unlawful eviction cases, including harassment, can be heard in housing court within five days.
While Housing Courts generally schedule illegal lockout cases within seven days, said Grinthal, speedy hearings are not guaranteed under current state law for unlawful eviction cases.
“The city should not be supporting landlords who throw people out of their homes illegally,” said Nurse. “What we’re gonna do is make it incredibly costly.”
‘I Would Not Wish This Even on a Rat’
Dain Whyte lives in Nurse’s district and says he experienced a lockout earlier this year, after more than two years of conflict with his landlord, Ashu Vaid, over apartment conditions, including a lack of heat or hot water, and unpaid rent once government aid ran out.
He eventually got back in after waiting hours in the cold for the police to come and talk to his landlord’s partner, he said. Whyte said the police did not believe the explanations of the landlord’s partner for the lockout, but they also did not issue any warning.
“It’s very depressing,” Whyte said of his experience. “I would not wish this even on a rat.”
Whyte has won court orders demanding repairs and has succeeded in getting some done, though Vaid is contesting a judgment, which ordered Oze, Ashu Venture Corp to pay $11,100 to the city’s housing agency after he delayed making urgent repairs to the apartment.
On April 19, 2023, Vaid sued Whyte in court for nonpayment of rent, alleging Whyte owes $10,000. That filing also seeks to evict him. Vaid did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
Whyte acknowledged he owes rent, but he said the landlord is shutting off utilities in what he contends is an effort to get him to move.
“It’s illegal for them to turn off the hot water, which the court told me that’s illegal, whether I pay rent or not,” he said.
Meanwhile, Whyte is waiting for a housing voucher to find a new home. When the hot water runs out, he takes a shower by boiling water in a kettle and cutting it with cold water.
“God please, I need to move,” said Whyte. “This is a nightmare for real.”