On Wednesday, about 12 hours before New York’s eviction moratorium was set to expire, protesters piled into the fluorescent lobby of a Brooklyn office building. But they weren’t visiting elected officials who could extend the moratorium or even landlords they might shame. Instead, the group was targeting lawyers who help process the city’s mountain of impending eviction notices.
“No landlords, no cops, all evictions gotta stop,” protesters chanted at one of two law offices they visited that day.
America is on the cusp of an evictions crisis, with an estimated 23 million people at risk of losing their homes. A federal eviction moratorium—which barred evictions on government-backed residences to protect the millions of Americans who lost income due to COVID-19—expired in late July, with a $600 per week COVID-19 unemployment benefit expiring several days later. Although some states have their own eviction moratoriums on a wider array of homes, those are often also slated to expire soon too.
In a last-ditch effort to fight lockouts, and after a summer of rage targeted at cops and other symbols of law and order in America, activists aren’t content to go after politicians. Instead, they want to shut down the machinery of the eviction system: the nation’s housing courts and the people who make it run.
Wednesday’s action in Brooklyn, which also made stops at Brooklyn Borough Hall and a Brooklyn housing court, saw demonstrators march through two law offices that they said did just that.
“Keep trying to evict tenants, and we’ll keep showing up and shutting down your office every day,” the group Housing Justice for All tweeted alongside video of one of the protests. “Other lawyers working for landlords: watch out, we’re coming for you next.”
Calls for better tenant protection may be having an impact: New Yorkers appeared to receive a one-month extension on Wednesday, though the details were still being hashed out in court, and tenant groups said thousands of people whose evictions predated the pandemic could still be cast out.
The group continued the protests Thursday, storming the lobby of another real-estate law firm whose website domain name is “nyevictionlawyer.”
Neither of the law offices targeted Wednesday returned The Daily Beast’s request for comment. A partner at the third office, Balsamo, Rosenblatt & Hall, said he sympathized with the protesters’ claims, but that they shouldn’t have focused on him. “I stop evictions. Half of my clients are tenants,” Robert Rosenblatt told The Daily Beast. “I’m not just a landlords’ attorney like they think. They targeted the wrong party today, because I prevent homelessness.”
He said that he would still continue to represent landlords in eviction proceedings. “I have a family, I have to support my family. I have been out of work for 100 days.”
Rosenblatt also claimed protesters stole his notary stamps and wrote on surfaces with markers. “That’s not peaceful, that’s not how you get a message across,” he said. “That’s violence. That’s looting. That’s illegal. That’s a misdemeanor.”
The Crown Heights Tenant Union was among the groups protesting on both days. Although the organization declined to comment on Rosenblatt’s allegations, Jess Dunn, who organizes with CHTU, said an employee tried pushing her and other protesters out of the office. (Rosenblatt, who was not present at the time, accused the protesters of trespassing, and of rushing an employee who tried to keep them out.)
Dunn said the coronavirus pandemic had turned a long-simmering crisis of gentrification and evictions in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights to a boiling point.
“COVID has really exacerbated it,” Dunn told The Daily Beast. “This is a working-class neighborhood. A lot of folks have lost their jobs, gotten ill, had to take care of family members, and they’re at a point where they can’t afford to pay their rent.”
Getting lawyers to stop filing eviction papers might be a tall order. Some landlords have reportedly proceeded with lockouts even while prohibited by eviction moratoriums. Even though New Yorkers can technically appeal their evictions based on COVID-19 economic hardship after the moratorium expires, NYC landlords already obtained approximately 14,000 eviction warrants before it took effect, and may be able to start acting on them as soon as this week.
Indeed, a discussion forum for landlords at the real-estate investing site BiggerPockets.com suggested many of them were licking their chops at the chance to clear out tenants nationwide.
One poster suggested skirting what few protections there are for renters by offering “cash for keys to any of your non-paying tenants. I am doing that with one tomorrow and hope the tenant takes me up on it,” the Los Angeles landlord wrote. “The eviction moratorium may have expired but courts are going to be backed up for months dealing with a flood of evictions which could cost a landlord far more money than simply paying the tenants off and moving on... not to mention evictions cost money.”
Others, like a landlord in Washington, urged colleagues to be more discriminating in their tenants, and to avoid “blue collar” workers who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID crisis. “One thing that I think is an important lesson here is not to rent to blue collar workers,” he wrote.
Still others expressed limited sympathy for some out-of-work tenants, stating that they should be enjoying a “windfall” of unemployment benefits. “They should be making mad unemployment money,” one landlord advised another, who asked about how to deal with newly out-of-work tenants. “I’d consider offering them cash for keys to move out in 2 weeks or I would start the eviction process.” (The $600 weekly bonus has now expired and, even when active, was notoriously difficult for some people to obtain. The original landlord explained that one of the tenants was ineligible for unemployment because they were on a work visa.)
But rather than just talking about how evil landlords are, the protesters who stormed the Brooklyn law offices said part of their goal was to reveal the anatomy of an eviction.
“The purpose is to show folks how many moving pieces are part of the system and how many people you really can hold accountable,” Dunn said.
Art Against Displacement, another group that participated in the protests, represents renters in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Lower East Side neighborhoods. AAD member Vanessa Thill said she hoped the protest would help put faces to the eviction process—both in the eyes of the evicted and the people filing the orders.
“We were there to show them that this is not going to be just pushing through paperwork,” she told The Daily Beast.
The demonstrations were just the latest in a set of nationwide actions targeting the inner workings of the eviction machine. In New Orleans last week, activists chained themselves together outside a court to block landlords from filing eviction paperwork. They were partially successful, even if just for the day. Footage from the scene showed multiple people approaching the court, confronting the wall of protesters, and turning around without entering. Court officials contended that the protesters hurt their cause, however, because they blocked other people—including tenant attorneys—from entering.
Activists in Kansas City took a similar approach last week, actually entering the courthouse to disrupt eviction proceedings. Two people were reportedly arrested. And in Brooklyn on Thursday, activists waged their own protest outside a housing court.
Ultimately, Brooklyn’s protesters want a full cancellation of rent—rather than a temporary reprieve that leaves renters in debt later. That can’t come from landlords or real-estate attorneys, but from elected officials who, as of Thursday, did not seem close to providing it.
For now, activists were content to make sure that everyone who had a hand in a system they loathed was a bit nervous.
“When looking at this issue, it’s easy to see there are a lot of parties not doing the right thing. Our legislators are not making choices that would protect folks. Our landlords are not extending human compassion in the middle of a pandemic,” Dunn said. “The purpose of today’s action was to bring [lawyers] into the light and to show that they are as complicit as landlords in evictions and helping the cycle of displacement to be so destructive.”