Now Máximo, 22, is serving a year-and-a-half sentence upstate. And his mother, Luz Peréz, a 54-year-old church chaplain, has been evicted from her $510-a-month rent-stabilized apartment for his crime.
“I didn’t know. I don’t do drugs,” says Luz Peréz, packing up her life into cardboard boxes days before her eviction from the apartment she’s lived in for decades, eyes puffy with tears. “I have no boyfriend. I have no husband. My son is in prison. Now I get kicked out in the street like I am not a person.”
Since 1996, public housing residents nationwide have been subject to a federal “one-strike” law evicting them or anyone in the household involved in drug dealing or other illicit activity. More quietly, however, for most of the last two decades, prosecutors in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office have pushed to evict thousands of tenants in private apartments, too. And more recently, as in the case of Luz Peréz, Housing Court judges are granting evictions even when the leaseholder seemingly isn’t connected to the crime at all.
It didn’t matter whether or not Peréz knew about the drugs in her son’s closet, Cyril Bedford, a city Housing Court judge, ruled in a controversial decision this August. “It’s scary,” says Maya Grosz, supervising attorney at the Harlem-based Neighborhood Defenders Association. Grosz notes that in the past, lawyers arguing for eviction were pressed to show a judge that at the very least a tenant had either “knowledge” of or “acquiescence” to a crime.
Other judges are now free to use Bedford’s ruling to justify evicting tenants who have no clue that illegal activities are happening in their apartments. But if someone doesn’t know about a crime, advocate lawyers wonder, how can he or she prevent it? “Where’s the due process?” asks Grosz.
The Bedford ruling has put a rare spotlight on the District Attorney’s Narcotics Eviction Program (NEP), designed in the late 1980s by Morgenthau to banish drug dealers who had burrowed into apartments and turned them into drug dens.
As law enforcement, the program has been remarkably effective: Most tenants choose to vacate on their own. When NEP cases do come to court, the D.A.’s office estimates that it wins win 98 percent of its evictions.
That’s an impressive batting average. Drug-infested buildings have been cleared almost single-handedly. In some cases, the D.A.’s office reports, entire city blocks have seen crack dens and drug slums disappear. But as the city’s number of drug convictions continues to decline, both NEP coordinators and advocacy lawyers say they are finding that many of the tenants they seek to evict are not associated with heavy drug dealers at all, as was once the case. And their families, often blind to the crime, are the ones getting punished.
The Narcotics Eviction Program was Morgenthau’s baby. “No other individual step we take addresses the drug-trafficking problem as effectively in a building where people live,” the D.A. said, announcing the Narcotics Eviction Program in 1987. “There’s nothing more important than recapturing housing stock so people can live safely in their homes.”
At the time, law enforcers faced a nagging problem. Even when dealers had gone through the lengthy process of getting busted and convicted and sent to prison, sales in apartments continued. Crack was becoming more popular on the street--an epidemic. Narcotic cops were raiding the same drug dens, over and over, in the same apartments.
To uproot the drug trade, the D.A.’s office resurrected certain provisions of the Real Property Act and Proceedings Laws, a dusty series of statutes known as “bawdy house laws.” Intended to banish prostitution and houses of ill repute, the laws call for eviction of the primary tenant, presumably the madam. Interpreting the statutes, Morgenthau and other legal enforcers around the country have argued successfully that the bawdy house laws could also be used to banish any illegal business. While NEP’s main target has been the drug trade, the D.A.’s office says it also goes after prostitution rings, black market guns and cigarettes, and the lucrative trade in counterfeit sports apparel.
Following Morgenthau’s swift success, the city’s other boroughs adopted the program as well. “It’s absolutely necessary,” says Oscar Ruiz, an assistant district attorney in Queens. “Sure, you always have one person who claims not to know anything--but what about the 900 other people in the neighborhood that get affected by that ignorance? They suffer the terror.”
The D.A.’s office doesn’t just put the squeeze on tenants; it holds landlords responsible, too, and relies on them to press cases in Housing Court. If they fail to bring eviction proceedings, owners can be forced to pay fines, be named in litigation or lose their buildings through forfeiture. After an arrest or search warrant is executed and evidence of a business is discovered, no matter how small the amount of drugs is, NEP coordinators and paralegals send a letter to the owner of the building requesting that the landlord execute eviction proceedings against the tenant immediately.
In turn, the D.A.’s office offers to piggyback the case in court for the landlord, arranging paperwork and preparing witnesses. They give away precious “red backs,” colored pieces of paper that accompany legal claims and ensure cases move speedily through the cluttered court system. And while the D.A. is not technically a party to the case, city paralegals also accompany attorneys for landlords into courtrooms, offer support, help negotiate settlements and make sure cases aren’t bungled. The D.A. even has a pre-prepared sheet of questions designated for landlords’ attorneys--just in case a lawyer forgets which questions to ask a tenant or detective on the stand.
Some landlords are happy to have help getting rid of their tenants, especially from regulated apartments that can fetch much higher rents once they’re vacant. Others balk at evicting longtime tenants who are harmless and at being forced to pay legal fees to evict tenants who send in rent on time. (Drug dealers have always been known for punctual payments.)