By Josefa Velasquez and Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
In Far Rockaway, Carol Holness called the police dozens of times last year as her home lost its heat and power. Eventually, her landlord changed the locks on her door.
In Corona, Norma and Luis fled flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that poured water waist high in their basement apartment. Their possessions — including his food delivery scooter — were destroyed. They sought a pause on rent, but their landlord told them to leave instead.
Evicting tenants without getting a judge’s order in Housing Court first is a crime in New York, and not an uncommon one.
By law, landlords who try to evict tenants by harassment, intentionally cutting utilities or changing the locks can be arrested, issued a summons, and even go to jail for up to a year. The NYPD bears the responsibility to enforce the city and state’s unlawful eviction laws, as detailed in police bulletins, legal guidances and the police patrol guide.
But during the pandemic — a time of extraordinary hardship for renters and landlords alike — the police rarely did, even as thousands of tenants filed Housing Court cases against their landlords for the same acts.
The NYPD made just 39 arrests for the crime of unlawful eviction in 2020 and 2021, when that crime was the top charge listed at arraignment, state court data shows. The city’s district attorneys have disclosed a dozen other cases in that time where landlords were charged with unlawful eviction in combination with other charges, such as assault.
Many of the arrests led to desk appearance tickets, which allow defendants to come back to court later — even though the NYPD patrol guide expressly prohibits issuing the tickets for unlawful evictions.
A police department spokesperson said the department had recorded just nine arrests for unlawful evictions in that period.
The arrest data are revealed in a trove of criminal data New York State released in response to the 2020 George Floyd protests, to increase transparency in the criminal justice system.
Police also issued at least 131 criminal summonses — less serious than an arrest — for unlawful eviction during those two years, according to court and NYPD data.
Those arrests and summonses, however, represent a tiny fraction of times tenants allege they are locked out or intentionally left without heat or hot water.
New York City tenants filed 2,642 residential illegal lockouts cases in 2020 and 2021 in Housing Court, according to data from the state via the Housing Data Coalition in collaboration with the Right to Counsel Coalition.
Including all New York City Housing Court cases where tenants alleged a disruption of services, a lack of repairs, harassment, illegal lockouts or an uninhabitable apartment, tenants filed just over 16,450 cases seeking relief over those two years.
No Relief from the Police
For tenants, calls to the police for an unlawful eviction can lead nowhere — even when other government agencies confirm landlords acted illegally.
Holness, a home health aide, saw her utilities cut and her locks changed last year in her Far Rockaway apartment, after her neighbor and landlord, Rachel Mifsud, received a foreclosure notice.
Between Feb. 3 and March 2 2021, Holness filed complaints with the city’s 311 system 14 times, records show, reporting that her apartment had no heat, gas, electricity, smoke detector or carbon monoxide monitor. She also reported that her mailbox was broken and that there was a mice infestation.
Holness withheld her rent in February because of the persistent utility shutoffs, according to evidence she later offered in a Housing Court case she filed against Mifsud. During the dead of winter, Holness said in an interview, she wore a diaper at night and slept in 14 layers of clothing to stay warm in her barely habitable apartment.
On March 3, inspectors from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development cited “immediately hazardous” code violations and ordered Mifsud to provide electricity and heat.
As later noted in an HPD lawsuit, the landlord had a responsibility to keep her building in “good repair.” The suit further noted that these violations meant Holness’s life was in “immediate and constant danger.”
Three days after HPD issued the violations — which the agency posted on its website — Holness called the police to report her utilities had been sporadically shut off from February 25, a police complaint report shows.
In the report, Officer Christopher Sokol of the 101st Precinct reported Mifsud for the misdemeanor of “ILLEGAL EVICT.” The report states that officers personally observed Holness’s apartment had no heat or electricity.
But, according to the report, “Attempt’s to contact landlord unsuccessful.” Listing “Total Wanted: 1,” the police did not arrest Mifsud.
Then on March 10, Holness sued Mifsud in Housing Court with the help of a Legal Aid Society lawyer, seeking emergency repairs. Nine days later, a judge ordered Mifsud to fix the most immediately hazardous code violations within 24 hours.
But the repairs never happened, HPD court filings alleged. Housing Court later found Mifsud had failed to provide heat, hot water and electricity for weeks on end.
Holness kept calling the police, and officers wrote up two incident slips on March 21 noting her reports of harassment and illegal eviction. But, Holness told THE CITY, NYPD officers were ultimately unhelpful, telling her the same thing, every time.
“I called the police, and they’re saying to me, ‘It’s not criminal, it’s not criminal, it’s not criminal’,” said Holness. “They can’t do nothing about it because it’s not criminal.”
“I’m not getting no help from the cops” she added.
Cutting off utilities to evict tenants, harassment and locking out tenants without a court order are in fact criminal matters. They are detailed for police officers in the police patrol guide. The guide lists specific instructions for arresting landlords if an officer has probable cause — some sign that the law is likely broken.
During the pandemic, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued guidance to police statewide, urging them to enforce unlawful evictions as a criminal matter if they had probable cause.
The NYPD declined to comment. Mifsud did not respond to multiple requests for comment from THE CITY.
For housing advocates, the scant number of arrests confirms what they’ve long observed — that the police do not treat unlawful eviction as a crime, preferring to let tenants and landlords duke it out in Housing Court.
“I think it’s absolutely abysmal,” said City Councilmember Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens), who co-founded the housing legal services provider Communities Resist.
The NYPD “always or almost always will send it to Housing Court as a housing matter. When you’re illegally locked out or evicted, getting back in is one of the hardest battles you could fight as a tenant,” said Krishnan.
Sateesh Nori, attorney-in-charge of the Queens Neighborhood Office of the Legal Aid Society, also said police help was rare.
Officers “never believe our clients and our clients end up having to sue, when they should be immediately back in and the landlord should sue if they think they have a reason to evict somebody,” said Nori.
In the scant instances landlords or property owners do end up in criminal court, state court data shows that punishment is virtually non-existent.
No defendant arrested in 2020 or 2021 has been convicted of unlawfully evicting a tenant when that charge was the top charge listed, according to the court data. At least three cases are still pending in criminal court. The others were dismissed by judges or dropped by district attorneys.
Criminal summonses, meanwhile, are adjudicated by the city’s Law Department. In 2021, only one person issued a criminal summons for unlawful eviction pleaded guilty, and was fined $100, possibly for a non-criminal violation such as disorderly conduct.
About 47% of criminal summons issued in 2021 by the NYPD for unlawful eviction were dismissed, while 44% are still pending.
THE CITY contacted every borough district attorney for information on all cases since January 2020 that include the charge of unlawful eviction. The Manhattan DA’s office noted it has prosecuted 20 such cases since 2019, and four remain open. A spokesperson said that generally cases are sealed because the charges were dismissed or defendants pleaded guilty to a non-criminal violation such as disorderly conduct.
The Bronx DA’s office said their office prosecuted 11 cases carrying an unlawful eviction charge since 2018, resulting in one guilty plea. The majority of those cases were eventually dismissed, while four are still pending.
The Brooklyn DA’s office did not disclose how many cases it handled, while the Queens DA did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Staten Island DA said their office has handled no unlawful eviction cases since 2019.
Unlawful eviction is a Class A misdemeanor, putting it on par with other misdemeanors like sexual misconduct or petit larceny.
The police appear more likely to issue an arrest when additional crimes are alleged, case files suggest.
Of the 11 defendants’ cases provided to THE CITY by the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bronx DAs, six list unlawful eviction below charges like criminal trespassing, assault, burglary, menacing and criminal mischief.
In a Brooklyn case, on two occasions a landlord allegedly entered a tenant’s apartment, hit the tenant, took the keys and threw the tenant down the outside apartment steps.
In another, a landlord allegedly cut the power and water to a tenant in a bid to evict them. The landlord was arrested and charged, though his criminal case was dismissed. He still has a criminal summons case for unlawful eviction pending.
The high number of dismissals is not surprising based on how the justice system works, said Gerard Deenihan, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Queens office.
“Criminal court is a huge assembly-line type justice place, where you have hundreds of thousands of cases going through every year on all different levels,” said Deenihan. “It just becomes a numbers game, like [prosecutors] can only prioritize so many cases.”
Another hurdle is the 2020 New York State discovery reforms that substantially expanded records prosecutors must turn over to the defense, and tightened the time to do so. One prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the law leads to more dismissals, because the DAs’ staff have to track down volumes of evidence for every case.
‘I Didn’t Want to Waste My Time’
On 111th Street in Corona, Queens, the basement apartment where Norma and Luis lived had only one window, one entrance, no gas hookup and no lease, according to them. It was their home for 7 years, they said, but they also called it “a deadly trap,” because their only window had security bars.
Hurricane Ida wasn’t their first inundation — their home had flooded at least three times before, according to Luis.
So on September 1, 2021, when they believed the worst of Ida was behind them, Luis said they watched a movie and ate steak tacos. At some point, though, Luis said he heard a water sound that wasn’t coming from the television.
When he opened the backyard door, dirty water cascaded into their apartment “like a waterfall,” according to him and multiple photos and videos provided to THE CITY.
“My husband told me, ‘Norma, let’s go, because this is not going to stop.” So all we did was get a black bag, a black garbage bag and pick up some important papers and what we could find,” said Norma.
“The most important was our underwear and our uniforms, because we were supposed to be working,” said Norma.
Norma said they piled as many of their possessions as they could on their soaked furniture before rushing out.
After the flooding stopped and the water began to drain, Luis took a video of himself in a bathing suit, taking stock of their ruined possessions as he waded around his home.
“Everything is dead,” he said in the video, looking at his appliances. Other ruined possessions included power tools, an orthopedic mattress and scooters to deliver food.
Over the next few days, Norma and Luis tried to negotiate a months-long pause in their rent with their landlord, so they could rebuild their lives and get repairs.
Because their restaurant work was cut during the pandemic, they had fallen behind on rent but were gradually paying their landlord back, according to them and a rent ledger they maintained.
Norma and Luis did not receive any federal stimulus and unemployment benefits because they are undocumented, and they did not apply to the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, which has stopped taking applications.
They said they last owed their landlord $200, which their rent ledger indicates they owed as of May 2021.
At first, the landlord seemed receptive to helping them but later changed his mind. Norma and Luis said he called them crazy for asking for a long pause, and ordered them to leave.
“Now what are we going to do?” asked Norma. “We already lost everything.”
According to Norma and Luis, during the pandemic the landlord also told them — incorrectly — that the eviction moratorium only applied to citizens, not undocumented immigrants.
Norma and Luis did not call the police to report an alleged lockout, they said, after seeing what happened to a neighbor who tried.
Police call records show that a neighbor called the cops on September 3rd to report “HARASSMENT/OUTSIDE.” But the police did not help their neighbor, according to Norma.
“I didn’t want to waste my time talking to a cop, and in the end, they wouldn’t do anything,” said Luis.
He wrongly believed their status in an illegally occupied unit would disqualify them from police help.
“Because it was possible that they wouldn’t help us, they would say we were renting illegally so we can’t do anything, that’s why I said we are not going to call,” said Luis.
They called a tenant helpline instead and were connected to the Queens Legal Aid Society, which offered them free legal advice. But ultimately, they did not file a housing court case.
After they left their apartment, they spent two days in Corona Park before Norma called her brother in Brooklyn to ask for a place to stay, according to Norma.
“We went to get a coffee and we sat down and began to cry, because, well, it was our house. It was our home. And it hurt us very much to leave our home,” said Norma.
“It’s not that we left, we were kicked out, as if we were worthless,” said Luis.
THE CITY was unable to reach the landlord of their unit after multiple requests. The owner does not have any active housing, civil or criminal cases against them and has not been accused of a crime by a city agency.
Landlord’s Racist Texts, Tenants Arrested
An official record of violations against her landlord did not help Holness — who found herself a police target instead.
HPD inspected Holness’s apartment again on March 22 and issued three more “immediately hazardous” violations, because she again lacked electricity or hot water.
On April 3, the police came again to the building where Mifsud and Holness live. But this time, they arrested Holness.
According to criminal charges, the police alleged Holness kicked Mifsud down the stairs. After spending a night in jail, she was issued a temporary order of protection by a judge. That meant she had to stay away from Mifsud except when entering or leaving the building.
Holness’s arrest was the third time in five months that officers in the 101st Precinct arrested one of Mifsud’s tenants. In every instance, the arrests came after those tenants made repeated complaints about building conditions to either Mifsud or HPD.
Deenihan, the Legal Aid lawyer, noted his office had seen a dramatic increase in landlords alleging assaults when tenants called the police.
“We definitely all noticed a huge uptick in these types of cases during the pandemic,” said Deenihan. “And it’s hard to interpret it as any other way, except that it’s a way of getting around the eviction moratorium.”
Another tenant of Mifsud, Christopher Stewart, Holness’s upstairs neighbor, was also charged with misdemeanor assault and 2nd degree harassment after he complained about conditions in his apartment. According to him, police alleged he hit Mifsud in November 2020 and kicked her down the stairs in December. After both arrests, he was released from jail and issued two temporary orders of protection, which limited his contact with Mifsud.
Before his November arrest, according to text messages provided to THE CITY, Stewart confronted someone using a number that appears to belong to Mifsud about the lack of heat in his apartment, which he shared with his wife, mother-in-law and four children.
Mifsud said Stewart threatened and endangered her life, which Stewart denied in the text messages. After an argument over the heat, Mifsud called Stewart the n-word repeatedly in the texts.
Both Stewart and Holness denied ever hitting Mifsud, and all of their cases were dismissed and sealed.
“Our side of the story didn’t matter,” said Stewart, who moved to The Bronx with his family soon after the December incident. “There was never a time where my side of the story meant anything to the cops. They were there for an arrest.”
Because his case was pending in criminal court, Stewart lost a high paying job offer as an appliance mechanic, according to him and an email reviewed by THE CITY.
HPD cited Mifsud eight times in January 2021 for violations in Stewart’s apartment, two of them immediately hazardous.
“When we left, Carol [Holness] became the enemy, because Carol knew everything,” said Stewart.
‘I Lost Everything’
After Holness was released from jail, in early April, the locks to her apartment were removed, she testified in Housing Court.
On May 4, Holness sued Mifsud again in Housing Court on the basis of the missing locks. Around the date Mifsud was served with the court papers, the building locks got changed altogether, Holness testified, and Mifsud did not provide her with a key. She was shut out for good.
Holness called the police, and they tried and failed to open the building door, she testified, backed up with a photo of the cops trying unsuccessfully to get in.
Stewart and Holness, who are both Black, see a racist double standard in their treatment by the police.
“If it was somebody white calling, I believe this would be a different case,” said Holness. “I called the police, and I was so despondent. And then I was just thinking to myself, there is no justice for people here that are Black,” Holness said.
Holness also said that her temporary order of protection complicated things, because the police said she could be arrested for just being around her own home.
On May 25, Housing Court Judge John S. Lansden found Holness “quite credible” and said “there is no doubt that [she] was a tenant for the last three years and was removed from the subject premises without due process of law” Holness won her case, and was granted an order to get into her apartment. The judge directed Mifsud to provide keys.
But Holness said she never got the keys. Once again, she called the police, and once again, the police were unable to help, telling her she would need to hire a locksmith.
Meanwhile, city attorneys began taking legal action against Mifsud. Between April and October 2021, HPD sued Mifsud five times in Housing Court, seeking building access for HPD repair crews and court orders directing Mifsud to provide heat, hot water and electricity, as well as civil penalties, according to petitions. HPD did not respond to requests for comment.
By the time Lansden had ordered Holness be let back in, another Housing Court judge, Enedina Pilar Sanchez, had ordered Mifsud to allow HPD crews in to do emergency repairs correcting the heat violation.
Since May, Holness hasn’t been able to return to her apartment. In a July 2021 sworn affidavit in Housing Court, Holness said Mifsud had thrown her TV in the trash and that she was still missing a dining room set, three bed sets and an entertainment center.
“I lose everything,” said Holness. “So all my furniture, what I have personal belongings, nothing, I get nothing. I was only picking them up outside. I’m a scavenger, and I’m a person picking out from people’s garbage.”
In November 2021, Judge Enedina Pilar Sanchez ordered Mifsud to pay the city in civil penalties for the dozens of days Holness was without heat and the 89 days she was without hot water, charged at $250 per day. The judgment amounted to $30,250.
But none of that money will go to Holness. She’s now suing Mifsud in small claims court for what she alleges was thousands of dollars in lost property.
Holness eventually had to move on to an apartment elsewhere in Queens.
“This system is really rotten, you know,” said Holness. “Even if they said it wasn’t criminal, I was still believing there was something that they could do. Because I was in the cold, and I was in the dark.”
This story was originally published on [February 17, 2022] by THE CITY.”