Shadow evictions

Illegal lockouts rise in NM during the pandemic despite a state law aimed at preventing them 

By: - Monday September 27, 2021 6:02 am

Shadow evictions

Illegal lockouts rise in NM during the pandemic despite a state law aimed at preventing them 

By: - 6:02 am

Tents set up at sunset under the “Scales of Justice” sculpture outside the Metropolitan Court in Downtown Albuquerque as part of a housing rights demonstration and overnight camp-in on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Tents set up at sunset under the “Scales of Justice” sculpture outside the Metropolitan Court in Downtown Albuquerque as part of a housing rights demonstration and overnight camp-in on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Cristobal Sanchez knows what rent day sounds like at the Siegel Select complex on University Boulevard in Albuquerque. 

First, bangs echo down the hall from the manager rapping his knuckles against his neighbors’ apartment doors. Then Sanchez hears him shouting about rent, even if it’s only a few hours late. Then, if the manager is in a bad enough mood, come the threats to call police, to lock someone out or to remove his or her possessions, Sanchez said.

When manager Ali Siddiqui worked his way up the hall to Sanchez’s room last week, his fiancee was in the apartment alone, he said, sleeping and under-dressed. The manager knocked loudly. She scrambled to get her clothes on before Saddiqui used his master key to enter, Sanchez said, to demand rent that was a day late. 

“They’re making it very difficult for us to live here,” Sanchez said. 

This type of intimidation has occurred at the Siegel extended-stay properties in Albuquerque throughout the pandemic, according to housing attorneys and the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. It’s also illegal, attorneys say. 

And it’s increasing in the city and across the state during the pandemic, advocates agree. As the public health crisis drags on, rental assistance is slow out the door and affordable housing grows more scarce. 

Threatening a renter with a lockout or lying about an impending eviction to spur a tenant to leave are what New Mexico state law describes as a “self-help eviction.” It’s an illegal way to coerce someone into giving up an apartment without a court order.

Other examples are turning off electricity, changing locks, removing possessions or barring entry. 

These are shadow evictions, occurring without judges, courts or notices. The worst-of-the-worst landlords illegally evict people who have the least support. Housing attorneys say the evictions that occur with a judge’s order are just the tip of the iceberg in New Mexico since the pandemic began. 

“In-court evictions are probably the exception rather than the rule,” said Jean Philips, a Gallup-based attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid.

A state law permits tenants who were subject to these illegal lockouts to sue their landlords and get damages or a court order permitting them to re-enter their apartments. But the law is rarely used, attorneys and advocates say. 

“I’ve never seen it. I’ve never even heard of it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster,” said Cathy Garcia, organizer with the Chainbreaker Collective, a tenants rights organization. 

A bare tree and dead bushes mark the front of the Siegel Select Extended Stay Apartments in Albuquerque, just north of the intersection between University Boulevard and I-40. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

A repeat offender

Siegel Select, an extended-stay hotel, is often the last housing people with low incomes find refuge in before they are forced into shelters, Sanchez said. In the six weeks he’s lived there, he knows at least two families — one a single mom with four kids — who are now staying at Joy Junction, a shelter, after being kicked out of Siegel Select.

Eviction bans during the pandemic were meant to prevent a crisis — huge numbers of people simultaneously without shelter forced to choose between sleeping on the street or in congregate-living facilities, where the coronavirus could spread rapidly. 

The Siegel Group, a Nevada-based company, owns about 60 other multi-unit complexes across the country and has three complexes in Albuquerque. Two are Siegel Selects and another is Siegel Suites — all extended-stay hotels or apartments. 

The company’s practices last week drew attention from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which fielded complaints of illegal lockouts and threats to tenants. 

Siegel was already on the AG’s radar.

Early in the pandemic, the office sent the company headquarters a cease-and-desist letter in response to a slew of complaints about renters being locked out or illegally evicted. 

The manager of a different Siegel property, this one Siegel Suites on Hotel Circle, turned off electricity to apartment 155, according to a follow-up letter from the AG’s Office to the company. 

A tenant who lived there used an electric wheelchair and was “rendered immobile by the manager’s actions,” the office wrote on June 26. 

Demonstrators calling for an end to all evictions and the cancelation of rent debt listen to speakers outside the Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque. People without shelter are regularly engaged by police on this Lomas street corner. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

“The type of conduct alleged in the complaints is always concerning to the (Attorney General), but during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are particularly concerned about the punitive actions taken by your client against residents,” the office wrote. 

Siegel Select said in court filings that the tenant moved into the complex in mid-February 2020 and owed more than $2,000 in rent by mid-September. 

The company took him to court to evict for non-payment of rent, despite the New Mexico Supreme Court’s order barring evictions for lack of payment during the pandemic. Had the tenant showed up to court, a judge likely would have granted a stay because of that moratorium.

But he didn’t make it to court, according to the records. He could not be reached for comment. 

Siegel Select ultimately succeeded in its effort to force him out of apartment 155, court records show. 

A day late

Sanchez and his fiancee were a day late on rent because of a mixup with his unemployment insurance, he said, one that he has every expectation will be cleared up by next week. He and his fiancee both lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, he said, his as an electrician and hers as a call center worker.

That began their slow descent into poverty and near-homelessness, he said, and it’s how they ended up $320 a week at a time for a small room at Siegel Select with paper-thin walls and one full-sized bed. 

He tried to tell Siddiqui that, he said, in hopes of getting a bit more time in their room, but the manager didn’t budge. 

Sanchez was one of several tenants who called the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty last week, terrified about being forced out of their apartments.

Cristobal Sanchez

“The property manager is banging on doors, saying pay up by whatever time or you’re going to be locked out,” said Maria Griego, an attorney with the center who helped several Siegel tenants, including Sanchez. 

Griego also said the owners recently started issuing 30-day eviction notices to renters, which is the first step in a legal process. As long as the owners don’t state that they’re kicking someone out for lack of payment, they can proceed legally in court. People can lose their homes for many other reasons, including claims of lease violations or if a lease is expired. 

But leases can be for apartments, houses and extended-stay motels like this one, Griego said. The length of the lease, she said, doesn’t matter when it comes to a tenant’s rights against being kicked out illegally. 

Griego said she called the complex owners to tell them that intimidating renters out of their apartments is illegal. She also helped several people apply for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which calmed management down, according to Griego and her clients. 

But there’s no guarantee anyone will qualify for the program, and it’s not clear how long the fragile peace will last there.

Siddiqui, the manager at the University Boulevard location, declined to comment for this story apart from denying that he was illegally evicting people. 

“People are just making false claims,” he said, before referring additional questions to the company’s legal department.

The legal department did not respond to a request for comment. 

State law rarely invoked

State law allows tenants who’ve been illegally kicked out their apartments to seek several remedies in court, including regaining access to the apartment, collecting damages or erasing all rent incurred during a time someone was denied access to the apartment.

The law defines these illegal evictions as when an owner or manager knowingly threatens, attempts or succeeds in removing a resident from a unit by changing a lock, blocking an entrance, interfering with utilities, removing possessions or making the property uninhabitable. 

Using “fraud” is another way to illegally evict someone, according to the law, which often means lying to renters about what the law says to get people to leave an apartment by themselves under false pretenses. That’s what Siddiqui’s conduct amounted to, Griego said. 

Even though this law has been on the books since 2014, it’s rarely been used, local experts agreed. 

Lawyers and organizers who fight evictions list the most common reasons the law isn’t being used:

  • Tenants don’t know their rights.
  • They don’t call police or the free legal aid service
  • They have no lease agreement
  • They’re living in an illegal shelter
  • They are undocumented
  • The sudden eviction is such a shock that they’re solely focused on finding a roof over their heads instead of finding an attorney.

“Once somebody’s out like that, if they’re locked out, if it’s that sudden, then it just throws people’s lives into chaos,” said Philips, the New Mexico Legal Aid attorney. “And it’s hard just to even keep track of them because of the chaos that results from a lockout. 

“So a lot of the time, it’s because people have so much on their plates in that situation, especially if they’ve got kids,” she said. “Like, I’ll be talking to a client, they’ll be in a McDonald’s parking lot, while their kids are sitting nearby on laptops using the Wi-Fi signal to go to class. Just dealing with the work of being unhoused, they don’t have the bandwidth to file a lawsuit.”

She said the most effective way to solve the problem of illegal lockouts is “a huge investment in community education and empowerment” that would help renters know their rights and stay in their homes even if a landlord tries to bully them out. 

Garcia, of Chainbreakers Collective, pointed out that the state Legislature missed an opportunity to help prevent these evictions when lawmakers didn’t enact House Bill 111 earlier this year.

Scaring tenants out of their apartments by fraudulently claiming an eviction is justified or impending is the most common way a shady landlord illegally throws someone out, Garcia said. The bill would have required additional information about a tenant’s rights and next steps on so-called three-day letters, she explained, which inform people of an impending eviction for lack of payment. Receiving those letters doesn’t mean a tenant is immediately evicted. Only a court order can do that. 

Tenants may not necessarily understand what their rights are. So they get that notice, and there’s no real understanding of what that legal mechanism in that moment actually means.

– Cathy Garcia, Chainbreakers Collective

The bill also would have prohibited landlords from choosing not to renew someone’s lease during a declared national or public health emergency. That was an effort to prevent landlords from skirting moratorium by evicting people for reasons other than lack of payment, Griego said. 

Garcia also said the state needs to do a much better job collecting data on rental properties, potentially through a statewide rental registry, to begin to address the challenge of illegal evictions. 

Legislative reforms in 2019 in New York made it a crime for landlords to do “self-help evictions.” But New Mexico attorneys aren’t sure that such a change would help cut down on them here, they said, given how wary locked-out tenants might be to call the police.

All that leaves lawyers hoping to help tenants one-by-one if they are being thrown out of their homes illegally — though Griego has referred complaints like the many at Siegel Select to the attorney general.

The AG’s Office intervenes as it can, said Matt Baca, chief lawyer there. Their office saw a “sharp rise” in landlord-tenant complaints during the pandemic, he said. Lawyers there fielded 162 of these complaints over the last year and a half, he said, though it’s not clear how many related specifically to shadow evictions.

The attorney general doesn’t represent individual interests, Baca said, so they try to resolve disputes informally by contacting the business. When they get a lot of complaints at once, like they did from people housed at Siegel Select, the office issues a cease-and-desist letter and evaluates “for any other available civil enforcement action.”

“We will always provide an impacted person with referrals to legal resources, in cases like these to the Legal Aid landlord-tenant reference materials, and with information on how to contact private counsel,” he said. 

But he stopped short of recommending a specific legislative fix to help people impacted by these lockouts. 

“With respect to policy reform,” he said, “the Legislature should absolutely look at any reform that will strengthen tenant protections, ensure their rights are protected, and make sure that people can keep access to safe and secure housing.”

What the law says

NM Stat § 47-8-36 (2014)

47-8-36. Unlawful removal and diminution of services prohibited.

  1. Except in case of abandonment, surrender or as otherwise permitted in the Uniform Owner-Resident Relations Act, an owner or any person acting on behalf of the owner shall not knowingly exclude the resident, remove, threaten or attempt to remove or dispossess a resident from the dwelling unit without a court order by:

(1) fraud;

(2) plugging, changing, adding or removing any lock or latching device;

(3) blocking any entrance into the dwelling unit;

(4) interfering with services or normal and necessary utilities to the unit pursuant to Section 47-8-32 NMSA 1978, including but not limited to electricity, gas, hot or cold water, plumbing, heat or telephone service, provided that this section shall not impose a duty upon the owner to make utility payments or otherwise prevent utility interruptions resulting from nonpayment of utility charges by the resident;

(5) removing the resident’s personal property from the dwelling unit or its premises;

(6) removing or incapacitating appliances or fixtures, except for making necessary and legitimate repairs; or

(7) any willful act rendering a dwelling unit or any personal property located in the dwelling unit or on the premises inaccessible or uninhabitable.

  1. The provisions of Subsection A of this section shall not apply if an owner temporarily interferes with possession while making legitimate repairs or inspections as provided for in the Uniform Owner-Resident Relations Act.
  2. If an owner commits any of the acts stated in Subsection A of this section, the resident may:

(1) abate one hundred percent of the rent for each day in which the resident is denied possession of the premises for any portion of the day or each day where the owner caused termination or diminishment of any service for any portion of the day;

(2) be entitled to civil penalties as provided in Subsection B of Section 47-8-48 NMSA 1978;

(3) seek restitution of the premises pursuant to Sections 47-8-41 and Section 47-8-42 NMSA 1978 or terminate the rental agreement; and

(4) be entitled to damages.

Demonstrators calling for an end to evictions and rent debt listen to a speaker talk through the struggles of living without shelter in Albuquerque. Organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation put together an overnight camp-in about housing rights. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.