Private Property
Matt Powers · April 12, 2017

This week, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service was awarded to the New York Daily News and ProPublica for a joint investigation of New York City’s abuse of no-fault eviction laws. The investigation inspired the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) class-action challenge to the City’s nuisance abatement laws.

Dating from the 1970s, New York City’s no-fault eviction ordinance allows the police to evict people from their homes or businesses simply because a crime allegedly occurred on the premises—regardless of who committed the offense. This draconian ordinance was initially intended to assist efforts to clean up “problem” businesses in Times Square. Since then, policing priorities have changed and hundreds of innocent New York tenants and businesses have found themselves targeted for drug offenses or other crimes allegedly occurring at their home or business. Parents can be evicted because of their children, and businesses can be closed because of their customers. The city’s bureaucracy churned out hundreds of these no-fault eviction cases every year using hastily-assembled, robo-filed form documents. Faced with the threat of eviction, many New Yorkers were coerced into signing waivers relinquishing constitutional rights as a condition of staying in their home or keeping their business open.

In October 2016, three victims featured in the articles partnered with IJ to file a class-action lawsuit challenge New York City’s no-fault evictions ordinance. Then, in March 2017, the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act passed into law, overhauling the city ordinance targeted by the class-action. Although these changes went a long way to prevent the ordinance from being abused in future cases, they did nothing for the thousands of New Yorkers targeted in the past.

According to the submission from the Daily News and ProPublica:

Reporter Sarah Ryley of the Daily News first learned of the practice in early 2014 while reading a lawsuit that mentioned, briefly, that the city tried to evict the plaintiff based on charges that had already been dismissed. She wondered whether this was systemic or an anomaly. The answer had never been quantified in the decades of material she read on the subject. She scraped index numbers for nuisance abatement cases filed during the previous year and entered details from court filings into a spreadsheet to get a better understanding of how the cases work, and pulled the outcomes of any related criminal charges against people who were either banned from homes or gave up their leases in settlements.

After extensive reporting, Ryley realized there were additional factors that should be tracked. She also pulled cases from the first half of 2014 because Mayor Bill de Blasio had just been elected on a platform of police reform, and she wanted to test whether anything had changed under his administration. She eventually teamed up with ProPublica researchers to enter dozens of details on 1,162 cases, tracking every major step of the process. Hundreds of cases were cross-referenced with parallel proceedings in criminal court and the State Liquor Authority.

IJ’s class-action was mentioned in the submission for the prize, as an example of how the investigation performed a “meritorious pubic service”:

Three people featured in our series are lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed by the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, which seeks to have several practices declared unconstitutional.

IJ congratulates the New York Daily News and ProPublica, as well as Sarah Ryley, for winning this prize for an investigation that revealed ongoing property rights abuses.