by Christa Douaihy, Supervising Attorney in The Bronx Defenders' Civil Action Practice.
The Movement for Black Lives has, among many things, created a renewed sense of urgency for policy makers to address our broken criminal justice system. Decades of discriminatory policing, criminalization of low-income communities, record levels of incarceration, and unequal access to attorneys are finally getting the attention they deserve. This increased scrutiny may -- though it remains largely to be seen -- jumpstart much-needed reform. Less talked about, however, is how the criminalization of communities of color has found its way into the civil courts. A recent investigation by ProPublica and The Daily News exposed one particularly egregious example: the use of obscure laws to facilitate the eviction of families from their homes without basic fairness or due process.
In 1977, the New York City Council passed an ordinance known as the Nuisance Abatement Law, with the stated objective of closing down the commercial sex industry in the "old," pre-Disney Times Square. Although the law was not intended to apply to residences, the NYPD is in the habit of using it to evict people suspected of a crime, before they even get their day in court. Relying on this little-known law, NYPD attorneys have obtained "closing orders" from judges against residential tenants without a hearing or even a basic notice. Nearly all those the NYPD has sought to evict are people of color, and they end up going through this process largely unrepresented.
Former NYPD attorneys have admitted that these operations are often unsubstantiated. The NYPD often evicts people based on hearsay evidence alone, in hearings the tenants don't know about, and without witnesses or tangible evidence regarding the alleged criminality. Elected officials' interest in legislative reform and a probe into the practice are steps in the right direction.
Sadly, the Nuisance Abatement Law is not the only way law enforcement is making people homeless. Each District Attorney's office has an eviction unit that threatens landlords into bringing eviction proceedings against those "alleged" to be selling drugs out of an apartment.
The DAs seek eviction even when there has been no trial in criminal court or the case was dismissed. Although these tenants are entitled to a hearing under landlord-tenant law, they are usually unrepresented, unaware of their rights, and forced to navigate a confusing and intimidating court system on their own. Facing both a landlord's attorney and an Assistant District Attorney, they are often pressured to move out of their homes "voluntarily." In public housing - apartments that low-income families sometimes wait decades to qualify for - the arrest of one family member can result in the New York City Housing Authority evicting the entire family.
In all these proceedings, law enforcement, public housing authorities, and landlords push a practice called "permanent exclusion." "Permanent exclusion," which does not appear in any state or local law, demands that tenants exclude the "offending" household member from the home forever. One of my clients was a mother whose two sons were arrested in an incident far from their apartment. She was presented with a painful choice by her public housing landlord: ask her sons to permanently leave the apartment or render her entire family homeless. In the waiting room of the hearing office, she said she felt like she was on death row. Ultimately, she had to ask her sons to leave, one still a teenager and the other in his early 20s. Both young men were instantly homeless, floating, and at-risk. Forced into such a hopeless situation, it was no surprise when one of them was soon re-arrested.
Eviction under any of these practices is not only cruel; it is also an ineffective crime-fighting tool, making people less safe by destabilizing their communities. I have represented people affected by these laws and have seen firsthand the catastrophic consequences of these evictions. Almost nobody is conducting sophisticated drug-selling operations out of their apartments - the scary picture painted by law enforcement to justify these practices. The majority of my clients facing these evictions are mothers and grandmothers. They live with their children and grandchildren; frequently, at least one member of the family is disabled. Almost all are people of color. Professor Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and a recipient of the 2015 MacArthur "Genius" award, writes that housing is the cornerstone of stability, and that eviction not only results from poverty but also creates and exacerbates it.
Eviction and homelessness are so damaging because they create downward spirals of instability. When you have no home, no stable base, it is difficult to focus on finding or holding a mainstream job. You are cut off from your family and community, an essential support network. Drug-related evictions isolate those most vulnerable from the people - often the only people -who can lend them emotional and financial support. By tearing families apart and pitting relatives and friends against each other, evictions and permanent exclusions destroy the social fabric that keeps a community strong.
Reforming a criminal justice system that, propelled largely by the so-called "war on drugs," has destroyed the lives of millions of individuals will require an acknowledgement of its flawed origins, the unraveling of thousands of laws and their consequences, and an honest commitment to prioritize the voices of those most impacted. It will require that we end destructive policies like the wholesale, state-sanctioned displacement of people who come in contact with this system.
Nuisance Abatement Law and similar evictions do not make communities safer. They destroy families and futures. They erode people's dignity and opportunities to the point where returning to the underground economy often becomes their only option. At The Bronx Defenders, we bear tragic witness to this every day, week after week, year after year. If New York City is truly interested in addressing our homelessness crisis and rebuilding trust with communities of color, eliminating these so-called "drug-related" evictions should be its first task.