The people of New York City are in desperate need of nuisance abatement. From stop & frisk to spying on mosques to summoning residents for the most trivial offenses, the New York Police Department has been harassing and abusing certain sectors of the city’s population for decades. It has now been caught using emergency procedures to evict people from their homes on a misapplication of nuisance abatement laws. For many in the city, the NYPD is the nuisance that needs abating.
Home to 8.5 million people, New York City is the most populous in the country. It is also the most diverse. More Jews live there than in any location outside Israel, more African Americans than in any other American city, more east Indians than anywhere else in the western hemisphere, and more Chinese than anywhere outside Asia. More than a third of the city’s population is foreign-born, and 800 languages are spoken there.
The city also has one of the highest rates of income and wealth inequality in the nation. The average household income in the city’s richest U.S. census tract is 20 times higher than in the poorest. Only 30% of the city’s housing units are owner-occupied (as opposed to two-thirds nationally), and about a third of rental units are rent-stabilized to keep them affordable.
With that level of class and ethnic stratification, in one of the most densely populated cities in the country, you can begin to understand the pressures on New York City leaders to keep it all together. But that is no excuse for what they’ve done.
An 18-month ProPublica study details the police department’s shenanigans:
In most other cities, officials can’t initiate a nuisance abatement action unless they’ve given landlords the opportunity to solve problems first. Authorities can only restrict access to a home after a court process that involves all parties.
But in New York, the NYPD begins nearly every nuisance abatement action by making an emergency appeal to a civil court judge without the landlord or tenant present, alleging the dangers a residence poses. Affidavits detailing three instances of a particular crime, such as drug dealing or gambling, in a one-year period are enough for a judge to authorize an action.
The allegations can be based entirely on the work of confidential informants or undercover officers and need not have led to arrests…
When they file a case, the police always ask the judge for permission to lock out the occupants of the residence until the case is resolved. These requests for what’s known as “temporary closing orders” state that the location is being used in an “ongoing illegal manner,” and that the “public health, safety and welfare require immediate abatement of the public nuisance.”
In all fairness, there are valid uses for civil action in the pursuit of criminal justice, even though the burden of proof is lower than in criminal prosecutions. The NYPD readily acknowledges its use of civil actions as “quality of life” enforcement measures. But nowhere does it admit to emergency evictions where the people impacted haven’t even been charged with a crime. One suspects they know they’re wrong for this.
In fact, they’ve got to know they’re wrong. That’s because they’ve stubbornly maintained the worst civil forfeiture practices in the nation, using civil actions — where people have no right to a lawyer — to take money and other property from city residents suspected of committing crimes. They’ve pursued these actions even when, in the overwhelming majority of cases, there’s no arrest.
The police commissioner has long been a fan of nuisance abatement actions to shut down businesses believed to foster or harbor criminal activity. But now, nearly half those actions target tenant-occupied housing. Assistant commissioner Robert Messner, head of the city’s Civil Enforcement Unit, dismisses the harm in these actions. “It’s an action about a place. It’s not about people.” Except of course, people need places to live.
It goes without saying that class is an issue here, since it’s hard to evict a homeowner. But race is also an issue. ProPublica reported that 90% of the nuisance-abatement evictions in their study were conducted in neighborhoods heavily populated by non-Whites. In fact, of the 215 evicted people where race was identified, only 5 were White. In effect, New York City has designated certain segments of its population as nuisances.
Some of those evicted are allowed to return under agreements that grant police the right to search their homes without a warrant. The intent of the policy appears to be the intimidation of ethnic minorities and the deprivation of their constitutional rights. This is not worthy of a great nation. We can and must do better.
The good news here is that word has gotten out. Mainstream journalists have been kicking up a major stink on Twitter in the week since the study was published. In light of all the publicity, I’d like to see the city’s numerous legal aid programs offer streamlined methods to help self-represented litigants fight these nuisance abatement evictions. It’s also something we at BAIT should look into.
It should be noted that abusive nuisance abatement actions are not new. They’ve been used to harass gay establishments and other unfavored groups for decades. In fact, there’s a whole sub-industry of lawyers working on these issues for commercial establishments, and their techniques could work just as well for households.
What can people do in these cases to regain their homes? My first thought would be a motion to vacate the eviction order. But this is not something I’d recommend because getting an order vacated can take time; plus, the burden is on the movant, or the person evicted, to show the court its error. And in many jurisdictions, the judge who signed the order is the only one who can vacate it.
Right. I’ve persuaded a judge to vacate an order, but I basically had to scream at him, call his sanity into question, and risk contempt of court. It’s probably easier to appeal the ruling.
A better option is to file an objection to the eviction order and demand a hearing on it. A successful nuisance abatement action results in a temporary restraining order or injunction. By law, the person restrained has a right to force the person who sought the order to prove the need for restraint. That means the city would have the burden of proving its allegations against the evicted household. According to ProPublica, NYPD would not be able to meet this burden in most cases, and so a challenged eviction order would likely be lifted.
The thing is, this shouldn’t be necessary. As a citizen of this country, I am embarrassed by this story. What’s happening in New York City is a travesty of justice and a shortcut to social collapse. Policies and actions like these will ultimately tear this country apart. Those of us who care about the future of the United States need urgently to put a stop to this kind of mess.
Want to join me in ranting about this? Much hell should be raised. Share yours in the comments below.