Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
On the Other Side of 25,000 Evictions
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
New York, NY —
Everyday we’re hearing about foreclosures and evictions, about people getting tossed out of their homes during this economic crisis. In New York City, there is a band of 48 marshals who evict people for a living. They do more than 25,000 evictions a year. You sort of wonder, what kind of person would do this job? WNYC’s Ailsa Chang spent time with one woman no New Yorker ever wants to meet on their doorstep.
When you look at Ileana Rivera, the last thing you think is this is a woman who throws people out of their homes.
Rivera: I knock on the door. And it’s, “City marshal, let me in.” They either come or don’t come to the door.
Maybe some people come to the door only AFTER they glance at the little Puerto Rican woman smiling outside. Rivera’s barely five-foot-two. She’s 33. And quite pretty. Then you look down, and see a black handgun holstered to her hip, right next to her cell phone.
Rivera: I get a lot of, “You’re the marshal?” That’s what I get. And it’s like, if I have a driver with me, they’ll talk to him before they talk to me. And I’m like, “Hi, I’m over here with the badge. Yes, that’s me.” They’ll be like, “Oh, I expected a big, tough man.” And I’m like, “Well, you got me!”
In her third year on the job, Rivera’s become one of the busiest marshals in New York City. But many long-time New Yorkers have no idea what people like her do. City marshals are "technically" public officials -- they’re appointed by the mayor to a five-year term and regulated by the Department of Investigation. But they don’t get a city salary. They’re like "bouncers-for-hire", private entrepreneurs who are paid directly by landlords and lenders that need to carry out evictions. They also tow cars and collect money judgments for litigants. Rivera says it’s a hustle to keep her business afloat, so she works around the clock.
Today, she got up at 1:30 in the morning to tow cars for 12 hours.
Rivera: We start picking up cars at three in the morning. And I finished just about 3 o’clock.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, she gets up at 5:45 to do evictions all day. Then she tows cars until midnight. Friday is her “slow day.” She just works from eight to five.
Rivera: I’m used to it. And when I don’t work the double-shifts, I go insane at home.
But some New Yorkers think a marshal with a conscience would work a little less these days.
ACORN: Stop Evictions Now! Stop Evictions Now! Stop Evictions Now!
The advocacy group ACORN is calling for a one-year moratorium on all foreclosures in the state, and for all city marshals to stop evictions immediately. This afternoon, they’re gathered in front of the office of the marshal they say has done the most foreclosure evictions in the last year. ACORN member Jean Andre Sassine says the group handed the marshal a piece of paper today.
Jean Andre Sassine: An eviction notice given to the marshal with the charges of Inhumanity to Families and Communities in New York City. It’s a symbolic eviction notice, but it’s symbolic of what’s happening to the community – the way they’re being bled and slashed by these evictions.
I asked Sassine, other leaders at ACORN – and members of four other housing advocacy groups – if they’ve ever heard of any time a marshal has mistreated someone getting evicted. No one had anything. In fact, they used words like “professional” and “disciplined” to describe marshals. Still, ACORN protestors think a marshal with a heart should turn down eviction business during these hard times.
Jean Andre Sassine: He’s paid. He’s a contractor. He doesn’t have to execute an order. He can pass it on to the next guy, and if they keep passing it on and passing it on, then it doesn’t get followed through and people get to keep their homes.
When Rivera later heard that suggestion, she just shook her head.
Rivera: That’s impossible. I-I-I wouldn’t even know how to answer that. I mean, how do you tell your clients I’m not doing evictions?
Three years ago, Rivera says she never dreamed she’d be evicting people today. She didn’t even know what marshals did. Rivera was a secretary for a labor union and a single mom with a teenage son. She was tired of sitting behind a desk. She and her boss saw an ad in the paper, and they both decided to fill out the 20-page marshal application.
Rivera: And I was like, “They’ll never pick me. What do I have, you know? I’m just a secretary.” We both got called for the first interview. I got called for the second interview and they sent him a letter, “Thank you very much. We have our candidates.”
When she got the job, she joined an eclectic team – a former exterminator. A registered nurse. An accountant. And ex-law enforcement. Still, her mom didn’t think she would fit in.
Rivera: She goes, “You’ll never be able to do this job. You have a great heart, she would tell me. This is not for you.” She was like, “Are you crazy?”
Her mom was afraid for her safety. Two marshals have been shot. Another was beaten and set on fire before he was killed trying to evict a woman in Brooklyn. Rivera says she’s often had to call for police protection during a job. Once, she found 12 snarling Rottweilers at a house. And she gets no shortage of verbal abuse.
Rivera: All the bad words, of course. “How could you do this?” “How could you do that job?” “That’s such a nasty and horrible job.”
Rivera says people forget eviction orders don’t come from marshals. By the time a marshal gets involved, an eviction case has already wound its way through the court system for months. Marshals are just the last people a person sees before losing a home.
Rivera: We’re not here to hurt people. Everybody sees us, like, you know, we’re the messenger of misery. You know, we’re there to tow your vehicle, to throw you out of your apartment or your house and it’s not just that. We’re just a middleman. We’re just there to do a job.
Well, it’s a really lucrative job. Rivera’s eviction work doubled in the last year, reaching close to a thousand cases. Evictions are now 70 percent of her business.
Each eviction brings in about $200. Rivera didn’t want to say how much she earns in a year, but the Department of Investigation says most marshals make a hefty six figures. A few of them even gross several million. Rose Gill Hearn is the department’s commissioner. She says becoming a marshal is a competitive process – and the city doesn’t pick just anyone out to make a quick buck.
Gill Hearn: The Committee and DOI are looking for people who are mature, who have a calm demeanor, who could handle volatile situations, someone hopefully with some business background, perhaps some background in law enforcement or accounting – someone with that sort of gravitas and maturity. These are sensitive situations and you really need someone whom we can trust and have confidence in can handle the situation in a sensitive way.
“Sensitivity” barely describes what it takes to do this job. Everyday, Rivera’s walking into some of the most painful moments of people’s lives. She says when she puts on her marshal badge, a shield goes up, and she becomes a totally different person. But when you watch her talk about her work, it’s like she’s still trying to decide how "human" she’s allowed to be doing a job so many people find reprehensible.
Rivera: You know, I get a lot of “What about my children?” when I’m doing evictions, and they’re parents with little kids, and I simply have to tell them, “Your kids are your responsibility. Not mine.”
At her Bayridge office, her staff members are locking up, ready to enjoy their evenings.
On the other hand, Rivera’s been in the field for 14 hours and still has a few more to go with piles of paperwork in front of her. For WNYC, I’m Ailsa Chang.