Dept. of Investigation finds errors in 2018 eviction data

111 Centre Street, home to Housing Court for most of Manhattan (Photo: Google)

Tabulation mistakes by several city marshals led to underreporting: DOI

By Adam Pincus

The city’s Department of Investigation found miscalculations that impacted the official residential eviction totals for 2018, a spokesperson for the agency said, and the figures are likely to be revised upwards.

The DOI discovered that two city marshals made errors while totaling their annual eviction figures and only counted evictions for three out of the 12 months, the spokesperson said.

The DOI undertook the review of the 2018 figures after PincusCo Media provided it with an analysis comparing the eviction data available online through the Open Data portal with the official summary totals compiled by the DOI using marshals’ reports and published on the New York State courts website. The analysis indicated that the official figures were likely too low.

City marshals schedule and execute evictions under the guidance of state courts. The DOI supervises city marshals and tabulates and maintains the official eviction records for the City of New York. It shares the totals with the New York State Unified Court System, which publishes them on its website.

The de Blasio administration cited the 2018 eviction figures in a February 2019 press release, which cited what it described as a 14 percent decline in evictions from 2017 to 2018. However, it is likely the decline is closer to 4 percent, according to an analysis by PincusCo Media of city eviction records available on the city’s Open Data portal. That’s closer to the official decline reported over the prior period, from 2016 to 2017, which was 5 percent.

The number of evictions in the city is an emotional and a vital statistic within the debate over affordable housing. Strategies to combat displacement and give tenants relatively more power against landlords have been a centerpiece of the de Blasio administration. The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year in legal and financial support to tenants vulnerable of displacement, and the eviction rates are used to determine how and where that money should be spent.

The DOI has asked the marshals involved in evictions to recalculate their figures, and a revised total is expected in several weeks.

“Preliminarily, we have found that discrepancies in the Bronx and Manhattan that you brought to our attention, and which showed steep declines in the numbers that DOI was provided, were errors based on erroneously compiled data from primarily two marshals,” Diane Struzzi, agency spokesperson, wrote in an email.

“These marshals electronically ran the numbers and punched in the wrong dates, submitting eviction numbers for a period of three months rather than 12 months, and therefore did not account for many of their evictions,” the email said.

The DOI did not identify the marshals responsible for the erroneous figures.

“This is independent data provided to us by DOI and we await any updates they make. Evictions are going down and thousands of families are more secure as a result. The affordability crisis has real consequences, and we are doing everything in our power, including providing free legal services, to help New Yorkers fight back,” Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for City Hall, said in a statement.

The de Blasio administration credited a 2017 law, called Universal Access, with driving down the number of evictions in 2018. The law provides free counsel to needy tenants facing evictions in 20 of the city’s approximately 200 ZIP codes, and is set to expand to all of the city by 2022.

The eviction debate is complex, and adding to the confusion is the term “eviction” itself, which is not clearly defined. The city uses the term to covers both bona fide evictions —  narrowly defined as removing a person and possessions from a property — as well as “possessions,” in which the locks are changes and the person is removed from the property, but all the personal property remains in the home. About 98 percent of “evictions” are actually “possessions,” according to an analysis of the city marshal summary data. Only 2 percent of evictions result in a person and their belongings being removed from the home, city marshal data show.

In addition, many of those reported “evictions” include an unknown number of residents who are temporarily removed from their homes but who quickly pay back rent and subsequently re-occupy the space, as PincusCo reported last month. Their property is never removed from the apartment and they return hours or days later as a resident.

Several landlords said between 10 percent and 50 percent of their tenants who are subject to an “eviction” are only temporarily locked out of their home and after paying late rental fees, are allowed to re-occupy the apartment.

Furthermore, several landlords who spoke with PincusCo attributed the decline in the eviction rate not to additional legal resources but to the liberal use of cash grants such as the Human Resources Administration’s One Shot Deal, which provide tenants with money to keep them from being removed from their homes.

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