Protect and Evict? NYC Nuisance Abatement Hurts the Poor
In 2011, Jameelah El-Shabazz, a 43-year-old mother of five, was home with her children when her apartment was raided on an anonymous tip that it was the site of a drug-trafficking operation. No charges were filed as a result of the raid. Nevertheless, El-Shabazz was told she could either sign a document agreeing to bar her son from the apartment indefinitely — he had previously been arrested for selling drugs — or else suffer immediate eviction under New York City’s nuisance abatement ordinance.
The nuisance abatement ordinance, passed in 1975 in an effort to dismantle businesses catering to criminal activity in Times Square, allows the authorities to evict individuals from a residence or business if the property is the site of suspected criminal activity. Despite its noble origins, the ordinance has often been unlawfully applied to coerce New Yorkers to surrender their rights.
The New York City Council has an obligation to halt this practice. And it now has the opportunity to do so by passing the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act, a package of 13 bills designed to reform nuisance abatement practices.
The legislation package would, among other things, require that a property owner be allowed the opportunity to appear in court before his or her home or business is shuttered. This is a sensible and badly needed reform that will help ensure that the suffering Jameelah El-Shabazz endured is not inflicted on more New Yorkers.
Much like civil asset forfeiture, the nuisance abatement ordinance is written in a sufficiently broad manner so as to allow the eviction of individuals from homes and businesses in the absence of a criminal convictions or even criminal charges. Mere suspicion that a property is in some way involved in criminal activity is all that is required for the police to seize it.
Astonishingly, the court order threatening El-Shabazz with eviction cited possession of cocaine as the impetus for the action, even though lab tests had confirmed that the white powder recovered from the apartment was actually crushed eggshell used for religious ceremonies. Deprived of the opportunity to appear before a judge prior to being evicted, and fearing she and her young children would lose their home, EL-Shabazz agreed to ban her 21-year-old son from the property.
El-Shabazz is not the only victim of this kind of police overreach. While the nuisance abatement ordinance was implemented for a legitimate purpose, it has increasingly been used as leverage to deprive vulnerable individuals of their constitutional rights.
The New York Daily News, in partnership with Propublica, investigated the 1,162 nuisance abatement actions filed between January 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. The report, published in February 2016, found that in 400 cases the city reached settlements that included warrantless searches of home or businesses; and in over 100 cases, the settlements required the exclusion of friends or family members from the properties in question.
Nuisance abatement orders were originally intended as a way to allow police to close down businesses providing havens for prostitution. Yet, the number of nuisance abatement actions has increased from 214 cases in 1994 to 1,082 in 2013. Much of this can be accounted for by an increased targeting of residences. The Daily News found that a residence was targeted in 44 percent of cases.
This just confirms what many in New York’s poorest communities already knew: The ordinance has increasingly been applied in a manner that deviates from both the spirit and intent of the law. Rather than using the ordinance as an effective tool to shutter properties that pose public-safety threats, the authorities have perverted the ordinance, using it as leverage in the attempt to coerce citizens to surrender their constitutional rights.
Following the release of the report, the New York City Police Department vowed to review thoroughly their application of the nuisance abatement ordinance. But a recent follow-up investigation revealed that many of the most troublesome aspects of the practice continue. It is imperative that the New York City Council pass the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act to remedy this situation immediately. Every day that passes without reform is another lost opportunity to help the most vulnerable of New York’s citizens.
Jack Crowe is a recent graduate of Colgate University where he majored in political science. Most recently he worked as a journalism and writing fellow at Watchdog.org where he covered instances of waste, fraud and abuse in government.