New York Unlawful Eviction Laws: A Tenant’s Guide
Unlawful eviction is a serious issue affecting tenants across New York. Being illegally locked out, having utilities shut off, or being forcibly removed from your home is traumatic and against the law. As a tenant, it’s important to understand your rights and the protections available. This guide will provide an overview of unlawful eviction laws in New York, penalties landlords may face, and steps you can take if you experience an illegal eviction.
What is Unlawful Eviction in New York?
New York law prohibits landlords from evicting or attempting to evict tenants without following proper legal procedures. This applies to tenants who have:
- Occupied the unit for 30+ consecutive days
- Entered into a lease agreement
- Requested a lease under rent stabilization laws
It is illegal for a landlord to evict or try to evict a tenant by:
- Using or threatening force
- Engaging in conduct to disturb the tenant’s comfort/peace to get them to leave
- Preventing the tenant from occupying the unit through actions like:
- Removing possessions
- Changing locks
- Removing entrance doors
- Disabling locks
- Shutting off utilities
These actions are considered unlawful evictions, even if the tenant is behind on rent. Landlords must go through the court eviction process to legally remove tenants.
Penalties for Unlawful Eviction in New York
Landlords who unlawfully evict tenants face both criminal and civil penalties:
Unlawful eviction is a Class A misdemeanor in New York. Potential criminal penalties include:
- Up to 1 year in jail
- Conditional discharge
- Unconditional discharge
- Time served
Each separate violation can be charged as a distinct offense. So a landlord could face multiple counts for separate incidents against the same tenant.
Landlords can also be fined $1,000 to $10,000 per violation in civil court. Like criminal charges, each violation is considered a separate offense.
Additional civil fines up to $100 per day may be imposed for not restoring the tenant after an unlawful eviction. Fines accrue from the date the tenant requests restoration until they are returned to the unit, up to 6 months.
Liens Against the Property
Civil penalties create liens against the rental property where the illegal eviction occurred. This means the fines can be collected by seizing and selling the property if the landlord does not pay.
Tenant Rights After an Unlawful Eviction
Tenants have specific rights if they are illegally evicted:
- Right to Restoration: Landlords must take “all reasonable and necessary action” to return tenants to a suitable unit after an unlawful eviction. This must occur after the tenant or their representative requests it.
- Right to Damages: Tenants may recover monetary damages like moving costs, hotel fees, replacement locks, etc. They can sue the landlord in small claims court or housing court.
- Right to “Triple Damages”: If a landlord is found guilty of unlawful eviction in a civil case, the tenant may be awarded up to 3 times their actual damages.
- Right to File a Police Report: Tenants should file police reports every time an unlawful eviction attempt occurs. This establishes a paper trail if charges are pursued.
- Right to Contact Housing Court: Housing courts can compel landlords to make repairs, restore utilities, and allow tenants to re-enter after an illegal lockout.
Steps to Take if You Experience Unlawful Eviction
Here are some steps to take if you are unlawfully evicted in New York:
- Document everything – Take photos/videos of any damage or illegal actions like changed locks. Get receipts for any expenses like hotel stays.
- Call the police – File a police report immediately. Explain that unlawful eviction is a Class A misdemeanor in New York. Ask them to stop the illegal actions.
- Request restoration – Write a formal letter to the landlord requesting to be restored to your unit per NYC Administrative Code 26-521. Send it via certified mail.
- Contact housing court – File an emergency complaint requesting an Order to Show Cause to stop the eviction and restore the unit. Bring evidence.
- Consult a lawyer – Housing lawyers can help you understand your rights and bring civil or criminal cases against the landlord.
- Call 311 – Report illegal evictions to 311 so the city is aware and can investigate. Operators can connect you to resources.
- Contact elected officials – Reach out to local city council members, assembly members, and nonprofit housing groups for assistance.
- Check for violations – The city may have already cited the building for harassment or lack of services. Check the DOB site.
Defenses for Landlords Facing Unlawful Eviction Charges
Landlords do have some legal defenses if they are brought up on unlawful eviction charges:
- No landlord-tenant relationship – Unlawful eviction laws only apply to tenants with a legal right of occupancy. They do not cover licensees, squatters, or guests.
- Good faith effort – Landlords may argue they made a diligent, good faith effort to restore the tenant after an alleged unlawful eviction.
- Tenant was offered suitable unit – Landlords can claim they offered the tenant another suitable unit to occupy after removal.
- Actions were lawful – Landlords may argue their eviction actions were legal if they had a valid court order or the tenant violated lease terms.
- Tenant waived rights – A landlord may claim the tenant waived their legal protections against unlawful eviction through words or actions.
Changes to New York Unlawful Eviction Laws
New York’s unlawful eviction laws have evolved over time to expand tenant protections:
- 1982 – Unlawful eviction was first made a misdemeanor crime in New York City through the Administrative Code.
- 1997 – State law caught up, making unlawful eviction a Class A misdemeanor statewide under Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law §768.
- 2019 – NYC strengthened laws by increasing civil fines to $10,000 per violation, adding the restoration requirement, and allowing tenant damages.
- 2021 – The statewide eviction moratorium temporarily halted evictions, though some landlords still tried illegal lockouts.
Many housing advocates argue that enforcement of unlawful eviction laws is still lacking. But public awareness of tenant rights continues to grow.
Finding Legal Help for Unlawful Eviction Cases
Tenants dealing with illegal lockouts should consult housing lawyers to understand their rights and bring civil or criminal cases. Here are some options for legal help:
- Housing courts – Consult housing court attorneys for advice and to file complaints.
- Legal Aid Society – This nonprofit provides free legal services for low-income tenants in NYC.
- Legal Services NYC – Provides free civil legal services for low-income NYC residents.
- NYC Tenant Support Unit – Can provide guidance, connect tenants to lawyers, and assist with complaints.
- Eviction Defense Collaborative – Nonprofit focused on fighting illegal evictions across NYC.
- Private housing lawyers – Hire experienced lawyers to represent you in housing court and unlawful eviction cases.
Reaching out to legal experts can help equip tenants with the tools to fight back against illegal evictions. Taking formal legal action also creates a record that makes it harder for landlords to evade consequences in the future.
Getting unlawfully evicted can be an extremely unsettling and challenging experience. But New York tenants have significant legal rights and protections against illegal lockouts and landlord harassment. Understanding unlawful eviction laws, documenting events, requesting restoration, and consulting housing lawyers can help tenants regain occupancy and hold landlords accountable.
While enforcement remains an issue, public awareness of unlawful eviction as a crime continues to grow. NYC has some of the strongest anti-harassment laws in the country. Housing justice advocates continue working to expand tenant rights and prevent illegal evictions that displace vulnerable residents.
If you feel your rights have been violated, don’t stay silent. Reach out to legal resources that can advise you and represent your interests. The justice system only works when everyday people stand up to demand accountability from those in power. With some determination and the law on your side, tenants can fight back against unlawful eviction.