Two years ago, before COVID-19 arrived, New York City’s 35 then-marshals collectively took home almost $14 million in net income. But like various industries, much of the marshals’ livelihood ground to a halt in March 2020.
A Supreme Court order striking down a key piece of New York’s eviction moratorium could mean big business for city marshals.
Few have more to gain from the ruling, and the end of some eviction protections, than the 30 people tasked with legally removing tenants from their homes. The marshals, appointed by the mayor and overseen by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), have lost out on millions of dollars during the COVID-19 eviction freeze.
That’s raised concerns among tenant advocates who worry the marshals may work round the clock or cut corners to recoup lost earnings once eviction protections lapse. The marshals, however, say they simply follow a judge’s orders and carry out a potentially dangerous, often uncomfortable task on behalf of property owners.
Two years ago, before COVID-19 arrived, New York City’s 35 then-marshals collectively took home almost $14 million in net income by executing evictions, collecting on money judgments, seizing utility meters and booting and towing vehicles. Marshals generated a gross total of $37.8 million before handing New York City its obligatory 4.5 percent cut—plus a $1,500 fee—and covering their own business expenses and employee salaries.
But like various industries, much of the marshals’ livelihood ground to a halt in March 2020, leading to huge losses and at least three retirements. With evictions on hold for three-quarters of the year, marshals collectively netted less than $4 million in 2020—a 72 percent decrease from the pre-COVID days, and barely more than some marshals make on their own in a typical year. Overall, the marshals grossed about $17.7 million last year.
“Marshals have been destroyed,” said Edward Guida, Jr., a Corona-based marshal who learned the business from his father and handles evictions and vehicle booting. Guida took home less than $8,900 last year, according to city records. In 2019, he earned $205,133.79 after grossing nearly $1.1 million.
A handful of marshals who specialize in debt collection have fared much better during the pandemic: Manhattan-based Ronald Moses took home more than $808,000 after grossing roughly $2.7 million in commissions in 2020. Still, that sum is only about half of what he has raked in in previous years. Moses did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Six marshals were in the red last year, with others barely breaking even. “COVID has affected everyone,” said Springfield Gardens-based Marshal Bernard Blake, who took home less than $3,000 and referred additional questions to a trade group.
Tenants rights advocates say marshals motivated to restore their once-lucrative businesses could mean disaster for renters hit with removal notices. The most vulnerable renters are those who were ordered out prior to the pandemic, but who were able to stay in place as a result of COVID-related eviction protections.
But pervasive confusion in the face of ever-changing laws and court orders—even for housing law experts—could put even more tenants at risk, said Ellen Davidson, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid’s Housing Unit.
“My concerns are that there’s an incentive to have a lot of people evicted quickly because the marshals are most concerned with regaining income,” Davidson said. “When we have courts that aren’t really fully functioning and people in the process of applying for rent relief, there are concerns that people will fall through the cracks and be evicted when there are laws and programs there to protect them.”
Just one marshal contacted for this story, Guida, agreed to speak at length about the job. Nineteen others either declined comment, opted not to return phone calls or directed questions to their trade group, the Marshals Association.
In a statement, association spokesperson Matthew Walsh said the marshals will continue following directions from judges while performing the tricky business of evictions.
“Throughout the pandemic, marshals have taken direction from the courts regarding evictions, as they are required to do,” Walsh said. “Despite any uncertainty that may exist regarding the eviction moratorium, marshals will continue to rely on the courts for direction.”
Guida, for his part, said he and the other marshals “are a good bunch.”
“People think we’re the bad guys and it’s so crazy. We’re good people,” he said. “It’s a job and we work hard and we try to do the best we can. We’re here to execute court orders and hopefully it’s right.”
A return to business as usual?
Even before the pandemic, evictions were on the decline as a result of recent pro-tenant measures. The city’s right to counsel law allows low and middle-income renters to have an attorney in housing court, drastically reducing the risk of eviction. State lawmakers bolstered other tenant protections in 2019. The number of marshals in the city has dropped from 47 a decade ago to just 30 today.
Still, there were nearly 17,000 evictions in New York City in 2019, DOI records show. Last year, there were 2,507 residential evictions—all but five before March 14, 2020, a few days before state court leaders issued New York’s first moratorium.
Despite the various protections in place during the pandemic, at least 40 residential tenants have been kicked out of their homes in 2021, according to the DOI data. The state eviction rules did not cover some tenants who were ordered out of their apartments prior to the pandemic.
In at least one instance, a gap in state law allowed landlords and marshals to legally remove a low-income renter in New York City’s most expensive neighborhood, his attorneys said. A city marshal evicted the tenant from his Hudson Yards apartment on May 3, during a brief window in the statewide eviction freeze caused by a clerical error on pending legislation.
A judge issued a final eviction order for the tenant—a resident of a below-market-rate unit who was unrepresented in housing court—in December 2019, charging that he and guests used drugs and verbally abused front desk staff, court records show. By the time the landlord, Brookfield Properties, sought a warrant to evict him, the state court system and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had imposed New York’s first moratorium.
With those protections initially set to expire May 1, Brookfield moved to renew the eviction order and eject the tenant from the luxury building known as The Eugene. “One resident was evicted—after a judicial decree based on an extreme circumstance—for the safety and well-being of other residents,” said Brookfield spokesperson Andrew Brent, citing an exception to the moratorium included in state law. “Like all regulations, we take the eviction moratorium very seriously.”
City Limits has opted not to name the tenant because he could not be reached for comment and because a news article could jeopardize his future rental prospects.
Lawyers from the organization Legal Services NYC represented the man in Housing Court only after a judge had ordered the eviction. Under an earlier iteration of the right to counsel law, the man did not have automatic access to a housing attorney because his Midtown Manhattan zip code was not included in one of 25 priority neighborhoods.
“He fell through the cracks,” said Legal Services NYC senior staff attorney Erin Evers. “It foreshadows what us housing attorneys are worried about happening in the coming days and months, especially in light of the Supreme Court verdict.”
The nation’s highest court struck down a core provision of the state’s COVID Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act (CEEFPA) Aug. 12, ruling that tenants could no longer use financial hardship forms—standardized documents swearing that a tenant was economically impacted by the COVID crisis—as an automatic defense against eviction.
The decision also allows landlords to make a motion to reverse a judge’s decision to halt an eviction already ordered, according to a memo to court personnel from New York’s Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, first reported by Law360.
That doesn’t mean a wave of evictions will begin immediately, however. Prior to CEEFPA, the state court system had put in place a rule forcing landlords to make a motion for permission to execute an existing eviction warrant. That motion has to be served on the tenant or their lawyer and the judge has to schedule a hearing on the motion. The tenant must receive at least eight days notice before the hearing.
The state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA) did not say how many of those motions have been made, or how long it is taking judges to add the hearings to their calendars.
“Landlords have been making these motions since last August,” said OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen. “Some of the motions have been granted.”
But landlords do not have to seek a new motion if they had done so earlier in the pandemic. Marks’ memo “just emphasizes that you still have to make a motion,” Chalfen said.
The memo also outlines various other tenant defenses for judges to consider in eviction cases, including a federal moratorium, an application for emergency rental assistance and the state’s Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which can stop an eviction for tenants who prove they could not pay rent as a result of the COVID crisis.
A numbers game
More than 512,063 households in New York City are in rent arrears, according to researchers at the policy group National Atlas Equity, but many of them will be covered by the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). The slow-moving fund sends payments to landlords whose low-income tenants owe back rent as a result of the pandemic; property owners who receive ERAP funding cannot commence an eviction for at least another year.
The specific number of eviction cases in New York is hard to pinpoint because many tenants and landlords resolve their issues out of court. Before the coronavirus restrictions took effect in March 2020, there were 130,000 pending eviction cases in New York City, but only about 50,000 of those were “actively litigated eviction cases,” according to OCA.
Some landlords have sought to evict tenants in the wake of the Aug. 12 Supreme Court decision. There were 184 new eviction cases filed citywide on Aug. 13 and 14. But it remains unclear how many eviction warrants have been issued in recent days.
When it comes to evictions, marshalling is all about volume. No single activity, even the actual removal of a tenant, generates more than $75—a fixed fee set by the city and paid in advance by a landlord.
Marshals also earn a commission for mailing and serving notices—$15 under city law—and receive a mileage fee for every apartment visit. Those sums add up over the course of a year, especially as paperwork mounts in hundreds of cases. Employees working for the marshals send out thousands of documents a year, racking up fees, though some of the profits are offset by postage costs.
Guida said he would typically work 16 hours a day before the pandemic, evicting five to 15 tenants and then booting cars at night. Like evictions, much of that booting work has also been on hold.
He said the trickle of business forced him to furlough 10 staffers, all women, after exhausting the federal Payroll Protection Program loans he received.
“Everyone is laid off and dying to come back to work, but there’s no money to pay them,” Guida said. “There’s no work for them either. I feel so bad for my girls, they’re like family to me.”
He said he empathizes with tenants wronged by their landlords, as well as property owners who have dealt with nightmare tenants leading up to an eviction, but hopes the end of the moratorium will at least lead to more administrative fees.
“We can’t even generate a paperwork fee just to keep money running,” Guida said. “Me, personally, if someone is really affected by the COVID virus, I don’t want to do an eviction, but the administrative fees, move paperwork around, make some money. They shut everything down.”
“Hopefully the [end of the] moratorium, it gets the paperwork moving,” he added.