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When court evictions fail, some landlords threaten tenants with illegal means

Illegal evictions - feature WEB

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—In early February, the Garcia family’s landlord, Douglas Ritter, shut the water off at their Binghamton apartment. Despite multiple court orders, Ritter hasn’t turned it back on for nearly two months.

The Garcias now must walk their seven kids, all under age 10, down the street to an aunt’s house to shower.

“They shouldn't have to walk down the street to bathe, they should be able to do it in their own comfort in their house,” Angel Garcia said.

He and his wife still cook at home, but they use bottled water.

This isn’t the first time Ritter shut off the water. He turned off the pipes to the Garcias' upstairs apartment for five days in December, claiming the family had purposefully flooded the apartment downstairs, according to court documents.

The Garcias began to fall behind on rent in November. Angel Garcia's hours at work had been reduced due to surges in COVID-19, not long after he made up owed rent from the summer.

In September, Ritter tried to evict the family in court, but the courts were backlogged. By the time the case came in front of a judge in January, the family had applied for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Because of that, their case was stayed indefinitely.

Tenants awaiting aid are protected

The Garcias are among the tens of thousands of tenants in New York still waiting to hear whether they will get rental assistance from the state, or if that promised rental assistance will be paid.

New York received roughly $2 billion to distribute to households in dire need of rent relief from the federal government last year. The U.S. Treasury released additional allocation totals earlier this month, and the state is expected to receive another $119.2 million for renters.

As of March 14, nearly 131,000 of the more than 318,000 applicants have received the rental assistance payments promised to them, and another 31,400 have been provisionally approved and await landlord verification.

A landlord’s sign-off is needed to receive the funds, which are paid directly to the landlord on behalf of the tenant. It’s unclear how many applications are still being processed.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) hasn’t released the number of people denied, but reports show roughly half of all applicants were approved and paid.

That other half may be waiting, like the Garcias, to find out if they will receive any assistance for the months, or in some cases, years, behind on rent. For now, they are holding on to the protection afforded to ERAP applicants.

Any household with an application approved or pending cannot be evicted, according to OTDA. Tenants brought to court can show their application number to a court in defense, including in cases in which the landlord has refused to accept rental assistance funds.

“Filed applications result in any pending eviction case being stayed until the application is denied,” said Bill Niebel, Garcia’s lawyer and an eviction defense attorney at Legal Services of Central New York.

If somebody is denied, Niebel said, then an eviction case can move forward.

On its website, OTDA officials said that while new applications for rental assistance are accepted, per a court order, those entered after September are not currently able to be paid due to exhausted funds.

Outside court, landlords may resort to other means

But while unlawful, evictions happen outside of court, too. Housing attorneys and experts often refer to them as illegal, informal or “self-help” evictions.

Like a lot of landlords, Ritter was frustrated with the state and the courts. Speaking to WSKG, Ritter said his "right" to an eviction heard in front of a judge had been denied for two years, while the eviction moratorium was in place.

“I would like the state to give me back my federal civil rights law and state constitutional guaranteed rights of due process,” Ritter said, “by immediate trials and evictions.”

Eviction cases have moved forward in New York, but like the Garcias', many are on pause as tenants wait to get approved for rental assistance. That process is notoriously slow in New York.

Ritter told WSKG he didn’t turn off the Garcias’ water because their eviction was paused or because they applied for ERAP. Still, he maintained that he won’t turn the water back on until the family leaves the apartment.

Ritter also confirmed he reported the family to child protective services. Garcia said Ritter did so on multiple occasions, including before and after the landlord shut the water off.

Housing advocates now want the City of Binghamton’s code enforcement office to use its emergency powers to turn the water back on. The Stakeholders of Broome County, a tenants’ rights group, held a press conference outside the Garcias’ home to shine light on local unlawful evictions.

Member Khamesi Black said code enforcement had failed to ensure that tenants, like the Garcias, live free from landlord harassment and abuse.

“We demand you use your emergency capabilities outlined in maintenance, city charter and code of ordinances to ensure that the water service is immediately restored at 57 Mary Street, and in all such similar cases as they are routinely reported,” Black said.

Code enforcement officers may repair or remedy dangerous code violations in an emergency, according to the city code. But Megan Heiman, executive assistant to the mayor, said that more substantive repairs are needed to restore water service to the apartment.

Heiman said Ritter cut a section of the pipes from the house, and padlocked the entrance to them.

Niebel, Garcia’s lawyer, said Ritter cut off an essential service as a means of unlawful eviction, a clear violation of state real property law.

“He's effectively evicted them by turning off the water such that they have to leave imminently, unless the water is turned back on,” Niebel said.

In New York, pressuring or forcing a tenant to leave their home, including by discontinuing essential services, is defined as a Class A misdemeanor.

That was the charge Ritter was arrested on last month. The Broome County District Attorney is now prosecuting the unlawful eviction, while the city's attorney will prosecute Ritter's code violations.

If convicted on account of unlawful eviction, it may result in several thousand dollars in fines and up to a year in jail.

Illegal evictions aren’t new, but few are as visible

Since mid-February, Binghamton's code enforcement office and the Broome County Supreme Court have continued to order Ritter to restore water service to the second-floor apartment, with the most recent court order sent on March 16. Before that, code enforcement condemned the building.

Ritter still hasn’t complied.

Niebel, the defense attorney, said that is part of what makes this case extreme.

“A lot of times code enforcement getting involved does bring about a resolution,” he explained.

Police involvement can have that effect, too, Niebel said. Binghamton City Police issued a warrant for Ritter’s arrest, and he was arraigned on Feb. 28.

When asked about the case, Binghamton Mayor Jared Kraham sent a warning to other landlords who try to force tenants out unlawfully.

“I want to be very clear to any landlords that think that this is a viable option to illegally evict people, it is not. You will be prosecuted,” Kraham said. “The city, the district attorney will bring you to justice for those illegal acts.”

Kraham has proposed that the city fund a prosecutor position that would solely address landlord and code violation-related cases.

But not all tenants have the ability, or the paper trail, to pursue charges. Niebel said many households in this situation may choose to move somewhere else without reporting the eviction. It is part of the reason researchers have trouble tracking informal or illegal evictions.

A survey of legal aid attorneys from the National Housing Law Project, however, found a third of attorneys had reported an increase in illegal evictions or lockouts last year.

Garcia wants to leave the apartment and has looked for new homes since the first time the water was shut off last winter. But for a large family of nine, there aren’t many places to go nearby.

Their current small apartment has only three bedrooms—one for the parents, one for the girls and the boys share another.

“Not really anything is available,” Garcia said. “Everything's for college students or everything is $1,500 and above with no utilities included, and I can’t afford that.”

Plus, the family must stay in the area to be close to both parents' jobs.

If they’re forced to move out, Garcia said the family may split up and stay with relatives, but he wants to avoid that if he can.

The parties will appear in court on April 1.