special report

Thousands of Tenants Evicted, Even in Areas with Free Lawyers

Landlord Ved Parkash
Landlord Ved Parkash Photo: Eddie Small/ DNAinfo

Despite the city’s targeted efforts to hire lawyers for low-income tenants facing eviction, landlords have thrown thousands of people out of their apartments, a data analysis by advocates pressing to expand the “right to counsel” program shows.

The Right To Counsel Coalition is releasing a list Monday of the landlords who’ve racked up the most evictions in the 20 zip codes where city-paid lawyers are representing tenants.

“We are calling on the city to investigate these worst evictors, because they are serial evictors,” said Susanna Blankley, coordinator of the coalition, comprised of tenant advocacy groups and legal service providers who pushed for years to get legal representation for low-income renters.

“The sheer number of lawsuits brought by these landlords is astounding. Filings have already gone down since [right to counsel] has been implemented. But the city could be doing much more.”

The current right-to-counsel zip codes are located on the Upper West Side, central Harlem and Hamilton Heights in Manhattan; several neighborhoods in the central Bronx, including Tremont, Fordham and University Heights; Jackson Heights, Ridgewood and Jamaica in Queens; Flatbush, Bushwick, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and most of Staten Island’s North Shore.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who put $15 million into the 2018 fiscal year budget for the program, has already dubbed it a huge success. Some 7,847 households facing eviction were able to stay put after taxpayer-funded lawyers represented them in court, according to City Hall.

Still, landlords in the targeted zip codes carried out thousands of evictions since the program began rolling out two years ago, with 15 zip codes the first year and five more added in 2018. From the beginning of 2017 through February, 8,263 evictions took place within the 20 zip codes, according to records compiled by the nonprofit data miners JustFix.nyc, the Right To Counsel Coalition and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

The right-to-counsel rollout appears to be having an impact. In 2018, the first full year of the program, there were 3,622 evictions in the targeted zip codes — down 11% from 4,099 in 2017. Evictions, however, also dropped in neighborhoods without city-funded lawyers, falling citywide about 4% from 18,819 to 18,008.

Jane Meyer, a City Hall spokesperson, noted an overall 37% decrease in evictions since de Blasio took office, in part due to a long-running push to keep tenants from entering the homeless shelter system. One in three renters fighting in eviction in Housing Court now has lawyers, compared to one in 100 in 2013, she said.

“Our investments have helped thousands of New Yorkers keep their homes and we’re focused on taking that progress further as we expand this first-in-the-nation initiative,” she said.

Law Passed in 2017

Most eviction proceedings are triggered due to non-payment of rent, but the circumstances that cause a tenant to fall behind can be myriad and complex. Some landlords target rent-stabilized renters with rent hikes by constantly performing apartment upgrades that allow for increases.

For years, the vast majority of residents who face Housing Court eviction proceedings have entered this legal labyrinth without a lawyer, facing off against attorneys schooled in the small print of tenant-landlord law. It is the legal equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

To even the odds, the City Council passed a law requiring the city to pay for lawyers representing low-income tenants facing eviction. De Blasio signed the bill in August 2017, and the city immediately began phasing in the program a few zip codes at a time.

About 324,000 renters live in the 20 zip codes chosen by the city based on high eviction rates and a large number of rent-stabilized apartments. More zip codes will be added in the fall, with a gradual expansion planned annually until the program is available citywide by the end of 2022.

City-paid lawyers are available to tenants whose incomes are no more than 200% of the poverty level. That translates to about $51,500 for a family of four.

Landlords Make ‘Top Evictors’ List

Some landlords make a regular practice of bringing eviction proceedings against tenants — sometimes the same tenant again and again. Take Queens-based Ved Parkash, who appears to have evicted more tenants in the targeted zip codes than any other landlord identified by JustFix.nyc on the Right To Counsel Coalition’s list of “Top Evictors.”

Quantifying the scope of a landlord’s eviction history is difficult because properties usually aren’t tied directly to their names. Buildings are often held by limited liability corporations that don’t list an actual individual as owner.

But landlords whose buildings are bigger than three units must register as owners with the city. JustFix.nyc merged those records with eviction filings compiled by city marshals to create a list of landlords within the right-to-counsel zip codes with high numbers of evictions.

That analysis of records linked Parkash — who topped the Public Advocate’s “worst landlords” list in 2015 — to 66 evictions in The Bronx. That made him the landlord with the most evictions in all right-to-counsel areas across the city. Overall, records show he evicted 149 households in 2018, including renters outside of the right-to-counsel zip codes.

Some examples from right-to-counsel zones: Records show that last year Parkash evicted five households from 3250 Perry Ave. in Norwood, five more from 2625 Grand Concourse near Yankee Stadium, and another five from 2487 Davidson Ave. in Fordham.

In 2017, the de Blasio administration moved to take ownership of a Parkash building at 750 Grand Concourse after an outbreak of leptospirosis, a disease spread by rat urine.

A spokesperson for Parkash said “appropriate remediation actions were and continue to be taken to address the rodent problem that was caused by construction adjacent to the building.”

Regarding the eviction records, the spokesperson issued a statement saying the tenant ousters were all legitimate.

“This number represents less than 1% of the entire Parkash portfolio, but all of the eviction proceedings were 100% justified. The vast majority of these eviction proceedings were against tenants for non-payment of rent — which forces Parkash to take this action because when tenants don’t pay their rent, it means management doesn’t have the resources to reinvest in the buildings for repairs, maintenance and upgrades.”

The spokesperson added, “The company is a proponent of tenant retention because it provides stability to their buildings. Parkash Management is deeply committed to a continued cooperative relationship with its tenants and to providing quality affordable housing to Bronx families.”

No. 2 on the list city-wide is a group of landlords operating as E&M Associates: Irving Langer, Libel Lederman and Joel Goldstein. Records show they evicted 62 households last year in the four Bronx “right-to-counsel” zip codes. They also evicted eight households from Manhattan buildings that year, records show.

Langer made it on to the Public Advocate’s “worst landlords” list last year for running up large numbers of housing code violations at several Manhattan apartment buildings. In 2018, he evicted 93 households from his buildings citywide, records show. E&M did not return calls seeking comment.

Flickering Lights and a $300 Rent Hike

No. 9 on the citywide list with 22 evictions in 2018 is the Morgan Group, run by family members Brooke, Ryan and Scott Morgan, records show. The Right To Counsel Coalition report says tenants say the Morgan Group often initiates eviction proceedings soon after buying buildings, then performs gut renovations that leave families without working bathrooms and kitchens, sometimes for months.

Bronx resident Sandra Sánchez
Bronx resident Sandra Sánchez Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Last fall, a Morgan Group tenant, Sandra Sánchez, saw her rent rise by $300 a month after her landlord finished what she described as shoddy work in her two-bedroom apartment in the Norwood neighborhood of The Bronx.

“I shouldn’t have to pay for that because it’s not my building, and it’s not my apartment,” the 36-year-old maid said in Spanish. “Especially if everything is worse than it was.”

Sandra Sánchez lives with her husband and children in this Norwood building.
Sandra Sánchez lives with her husband and children in this Norwood building. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

After a gut-renovation of the kitchen and bathroom, she says, there are more leaks and mold than before. The lightbulbs flicker throughout the apartment now.

She and her neighbors all found out about the rent hike after the fact. Sánchez contends she didn’t receive any correspondence that would indicate her rent was going up because of the repairs.

In protest, Sánchez is only handing over the $1,300-a-month rent she was paying before the renovations. But she fears getting evicted for what she says is an unfair rent hike. Some of her neighbors have already gone to court.

The Morgan Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Though right-to-counsel lawyers have helped hundreds of renters, housing advocates say many tenants are unaware of the program. They note that legal services groups supplying the lawyers for the program aren’t yet fully staffed to handle an automatic referral that would be spurred when a renter is targeted for eviction.

And advocates want to double the income limit for households eligible for city-funded lawyers, and allow tenant groups to take charge of outreach about the program.

“As it is, (Right to Counsel) is powerful,” said Blankley of the Coalition.”But it could be so much more powerful…everyone needs to know about it, understand it, and use it.”

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