The Art of Eviction
On a Monday afternoon last summer, Richard Cabello was hunched over his desk, riffling through a stack of files. Each folder was marked with a name, and each of those names belonged to someone whose life he was about to upend—Ryan A., Janelle P., Melissa S. But at the moment, only one file mattered to Cabello, the one labeled “José Torres.”
There was nothing remarkable about the folder he’d been looking for. Like the other files in the office, it would never grow much thicker than a pamphlet. A few sheets of paper are all that Cabello needs to do his job, which is summed up by a sign he placed in front of his office that reads, “Tenant eviction done here.”
Cabello’s company, Quick Evic, is on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, amid four neighborhoods where housing is increasingly precarious. In Brownsville, where he grew up, 40 percent of the population lives in poverty; in East New York, where Quick Evic does much of its business, the poverty rate is 25 percent, and one-third of tenants live in severely rent-burdened households, spending more than half their income on housing, and in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where gentrification threatens to put housing out of reach for working-class residents, more than 40 percent of tenants live in severely rent-burdened, low-income households. In Brooklyn, the median rent has gone up about 10 percent in the six years since Cabello founded Quick Evic, allowing the company to expand aggressively. In 2014 it brought in $20,000 in revenue, which ballooned to more than $300,000 by 2017. In 2019, despite a decline in the rate of evictions throughout the city, Quick Evic saw no decline in its business, bringing in more than $300,000 in revenue for the third consecutive year, according to Cabello.
It was Cabello’s efforts to drum up business in Bed-Stuy that led me to his front door. One morning in June, while walking down Lexington Avenue, I passed a boarded-up brownstone with a black-and-white placard affixed to the plywood that blocked its entrance. On it was an illustration that showed a landlord kicking a tenant to the curb, with text that read, “Tenant Problems? Call Quick Evic!”
The sign disturbed me. New York’s housing crisis has had grave consequences for the city’s most vulnerable tenants. In 2018 researchers at New York University found that people from low-income households, once evicted, face an increased risk of homelessness and are more likely to end up in the emergency room. And the problem is not limited to large cities like New York. Across the US, there are nearly a million evictions every year.
I know firsthand how traumatizing this experience can be. When I was in elementary school in rural Alaska, I returned home one day to find an eviction notice on our door, and before long, a sheriff’s deputy was piling our belongings on the curb next to last week’s trash. A few years later, after moving to Oregon, my mother, who was raising five children on her own, got sick, missed several days of work, and fell behind on the rent. We lived for months in churches and shelters. Eviction and homelessness as I’d known it were a far cry from the eviction experience portrayed on Quick Evic’s sign, which showed two white men dressed in fine suits, distinguishable as landlord and tenant only because they were labeled.
In June 2019, around the time I first heard of Quick Evic, Democrats in the state legislature were pushing through a bill with radical implications for housing in New York City. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 placed a cap on the value of improvements that landlords could pass on to their tenants and strengthened protections for some 2.4 million New Yorkers living in privately owned, rent-stabilized apartments. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people living in rent-regulated units were granted a reprieve from the threat of eviction.
It was a rebuke to the legislature’s recently ousted Republican majority, which had, for more than two decades, allowed New York’s housing policy to be set largely by developers. In exchange for funding the campaigns that kept Republicans in office, developers got the housing policies they wanted—and what they wanted, above all else, was to erode rent control protections.
New York’s rent control laws, introduced during World War II, were designed to ensure that service members returning from combat could find affordable housing—something that would have been difficult otherwise, given how little building went on during the war. For decades, rent control protections worked mostly as intended. While developers focused on building luxury condominiums and commercial spaces, the owners of older, rent-regulated buildings could count on a 6 percent return on their investment, with allowances for reasonable rent increases as the value of the property rose.
However, the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1993 weakened rent control protections by gutting registration requirements for landlords, allowing property owners to more easily ignore the rules without the state knowing. The Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 gave developers additional concessions, courtesy of Republican lawmakers, who had recently taken control of the legislature. The law scaled back rent control protections so swiftly that by 1998, the number of Manhattan apartments being deregulated more than doubled. It also allowed landlords to raise rents by 20 percent on vacant units, incentivizing them to force out old tenants, regardless of whether they paid their rent on time. Under these conditions, older multiunit buildings in Manhattan, which once provided landlords with modest returns and tenants with affordable housing, became attractive investment targets for banks, hedge funds, and speculators.
Over the course of a decade, investors gobbled up Manhattan. And because buyers could obscure their identities by purchasing property through shell companies, Manhattan real estate became as attractive to the world’s millionaires and billionaires as properties in London or Hong Kong, where criminals and oligarchs have long invested, hidden, and laundered money. The United Nations Human Rights Council, in a 2017 report on the financialization of housing, called these markets “hedge cities,” where global capital drove housing prices “to levels that most residents cannot afford.” This created “huge increases in wealth for property owners in prime locations while excluding moderate and low-income households from access to homeownership or rentals due to unaffordability.” Those denied access to housing were “pushed to areas with scant employment” and “made vulnerable to predatory lending practices and the volatility of markets.” The result of all this, the report concluded, was “unprecedented housing precarity.”
In the decade since Manhattan became New York’s first hedge borough, investors have started to turn Brooklyn into its second. They began with Williamsburg, where properties now sell for more than $2,000 per square foot. The process continued in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and showed no signs of slowing until 2018, when a new crop of progressives wrested control of the state legislature from Republicans. Vowing not to take money from developers, these Democrats set about strengthening rent control protections in precisely the way developers had long feared. Last June, the Democrats succeeded: The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 was meant to make it harder for landlords to evict tenants from rent-regulated properties and put apartments on the open market with much higher rents. So far, the law seems to be working. By November, an analysis conducted by The Wall Street Journal showed a 46 percent decline in eviction cases in New York City, with 35,000 fewer than there were in the same period the previous year.
When I first met Cabello in July, a month had gone by since Democrats passed this landmark legislation, and I was eager to hear how much trouble it was going to cause him. But instead of downsizing his eviction-for-profit business, he was expanding it.
“We just moved into this office,” he told me when I arrived at Quick Evic’s headquarters. “We needed a bigger space.”
Like a professional wrestler, he is content to play the heel. Cabello, who is 69, wore black pants and a black polo shirt with a Quick Evic logo printed on its left breast. He has a stout build, shiny bald head, and calm demeanor, except when his phone rings, which it does incessantly. His office, where he spends most of his time, is halfway between the housing projects where he grew up and the home he now lives in and owns.
When he was 15, Cabello’s family moved from Puerto Rico to Brownsville, where he saw how racism, finance, and government policies could bring down a neighborhood. White families flocked to the suburbs, banks stopped guaranteeing mortgages, and properties fell into disrepair as housing projects became associated with crime and poverty. He earned a degree in accounting and then, as this process began to reverse itself, he became a real estate agent to profit from the steady rise in Brooklyn properties.
It was a side hustle at first, but Cabello eventually left his accounting job to work full-time as an agent. His specialty, for more than two decades, was helping those who had been living on the streets and in homeless shelters. This was business, though, not altruism. Such people qualified for city, state, and federal programs offering subsidies to landlords willing to rent to them. And these tenants, Cabello noticed, often had experienced years of instability and sometimes had trouble paying the portion of the rent they were required to cover. So when they got evicted, their landlords would go back to Cabello looking for someone new, which meant another commission.
During Cabello’s years as an agent, Darma Diaz, a director at New York’s Department of Homeless Services, referred many people to him. She said that at the time, he seemed eager to help families transition away from the shelter system but in retrospect she decided he was a “cold-blooded opportunist” who found people homes when it was profitable and kicked them out of those homes as soon as he realized how much more money could be made.
“He’s nothing but a paper pusher,” Diaz said. This struck me as eerily similar to something another person said about Cabello, but at that moment, I couldn’t recall who it was. I realized later that I was thinking of something Cabello said about himself after I told him I had trouble imagining how anyone could look people in the eye, put them out on the street, and sleep soundly.
“Oh, I never look these people in the eye,” Cabello said. “To me, they’re just a name on some papers I file with the court.”
Eviction is a largely bureaucratic exercise. In New York, for example, the process usually consists of four steps. In cases of eviction for nonpayment of rent, it begins with a written demand for the rent owed; if landlords want the tenant out for other reasons or no reason at all, they must issue a holdover notice. And from this point forward, all that’s left is a court filing, a judgment from the court, and the execution of the eviction warrant.
Cabello’s innovation, if it can be called that, was to recognize how many New York landlords are amateurs, with no facility for paperwork—the kind of people who inherited property or bought an extra home as an investment. He knows this because he, too, was once an amateur, he said. In the 1990s he lost a property he owned in Bed-Stuy after his tenants (for reasons he won’t say) banded together in a “mutiny” and refused to pay their rent.
“I couldn’t pay the mortgage, and I didn’t have no money for an attorney,” Cabello said. “So I lost the house.”
The decor in Quick Evic’s office suggests that he still carries a grudge. The windows are lined with what might be called anti-inspirational quotes, which seem to add up to an ideology built around one basic idea: If a Puerto Rican immigrant can grow up hard on the streets of Brownsville and make something of himself, then why can’t you pay your rent? One such quote is from the boxer Mike Tyson, another Brownsville native, which reads, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
And yet he insisted that the landlords he works with are often barely scraping by. Typically, they own one or two properties, he said, most of which are two-family homes valued at slightly more than $1 million. They are, once rising property taxes are factored in, “the little guys,” according to Cabello.
“Developers, when they want to knock down some brownstones to build condos, they hire a big law firm to evict old tenants,” he said. “The little guys come to me.”
If Cabello really believes that the “little guys” go to him for paperwork alone, he underestimates himself. In truth, he’s not just a paper pusher; he’s a counselor, a confidant, and at times, the ultimate bad influence, offering landlords advice about how to act on their very worst impulses. And for all this, they pay him $300 per filing, or $1,200 in total if their case goes the distance. For Cabello, this has proved to be a profitable formula. In the past five years, he has helped evict about 1,000 New Yorkers, earning revenues of approximately $1 million. And he’s not the only one profiting from eviction. In addition to Cabello and his competitors, there are law firms specializing in eviction on the mass scale required by developers and owners of large property portfolios and eviction support agencies like Undisputed Legal Inc., which provide those law firms with process servers and even private investigators.
In August I spoke with Colette Fremont, a landlord Cabello described as one of his success stories. A few years ago, she said, she hired Quick Evic to rid her of “the worst tenants in the world.” It began, as many of these situations do, with a standoff over problems with water and heating. The tenants refused to pay until repairs were made, and Fremont refused to invest money on improvements while she was owed rent. When she went to Cabello, her tenants owed eight months of rent, but because they had a legitimate grievance, she could not legally evict them. Still, Cabello had a plan.
“Richard told me, ‘You have got to get them to a point where they are so pissed off at you that they do something stupid,’” Fremont said. She began by sending her husband around for regular visits aimed at antagonizing her tenants. He showed up at odd times, she said, and did his best to instigate arguments. Then she started calling the police and even the mayor’s office to report what she viewed as illegal behavior at the residence, to no avail.
“They were selling marijuana. They were smoking marijuana. But apparently that’s legal now,” she said.
Then one day, “it worked,” she said. “One of them beat up my husband and got arrested.”
Cabello advised Fremont’s husband to get an order of protection and then move into the unit above the tenants’ rental, thereby causing them to be in violation of that order by living in proximity to him. The tenants, who could not be evicted through standard channels, abandoned their apartment, just as Cabello predicted they would.
I was stunned that Fremont and Cabello seemed to consider this story an endorsement of Quick Evic and its methods. I was even more stunned when, after describing her role in this actual conspiracy, she justified her behavior with an invented one: She said her tenants had been in league with Jewish bankers and developers who are seeking to cheat black landlords out of their property.
“These tenants, as soon as they find a violation, they refuse to pay,” Fremont said. “The courts work for the tenants, who don’t pay, then the bank forecloses or the owner is forced to sell to these developers. The ones who are making money are the Jews. They are the masterminds.”
Her evidence for this, she said, was that a Jewish real estate agent left her his card at one point during the eight-month standoff with her tenants. But in the end, she kept her property, won a $14,000 judgment, and with Cabello’s help, found new tenants. In the aftermath she, like most of Cabello’s clients, evangelized on his behalf and helped Quick Evic find new landlords in need of his services.
Cabello hears from a few of them each day—landlords like Ehsanullah Ashrati, who bought a four-unit apartment building in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills neighborhood last spring and decided to get rid of all the tenants, even though they paid their rent on time. By June, they were all gone, except for the tenant on the third floor, José Torres.
On a bright, chilly Friday afternoon in October, I visited Brooklyn Housing Court, where approximately 50,000 eviction cases are decided each year. In a cavernous room on the sixth floor, a judge heard one eviction case after another, for hours on end, with only five minutes scheduled for each hearing. Schedules posted throughout the courthouse showed that every other judge hearing eviction cases had a similarly hectic schedule. In a large waiting room where tenants gather with their paperwork and await their chance to challenge their eviction before a judge, there was not a single white man, and no one wore a fine suit like the bad tenant in Quick Evic’s ads.
Most of them were represented by members of the Legal Aid Society, like Nakeeb Siddique, who works there as a supervising attorney. On that afternoon, like most afternoons, he was overwhelmed by the number of clients in need of his services and could hardly find five minutes for an interview. In the precious few moments he could spare, I learned that he had never heard of Quick Evic. This is by design. Cabello uses at least five attorneys to file his paperwork with the court, so there is no paper trail that leads from court documents back to him. Most tenants never know that a professional helped put them out of their apartment.
“We’re really glad about the new tenant protections,” Siddique said. “But as you can see, those protections don’t help everyone.”
One group of people who are not helped by the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act are those who live in buildings with fewer than six units. Brownstones like the ones found all over Brooklyn, for example, are typically two-unit dwellings, and their tenants are not afforded any additional protections under the new laws; in fact, such buildings are more or less exempt from any form of regulation, based on the assumption that they are the province of mom-and-pop landlords.
Cea Weaver, an activist and tenant advocate who was instrumental in pushing through last summer’s rent control reforms, told me this is one of the more significant loopholes in what are otherwise some of the strongest tenant protections in the nation. “We’re fighting to expand tenant protections so that all housing in New York is covered,” she said. “In the short term, that means we have to urgently pass good-cause eviction—simple legislation that would protect tenants from price-gouging rent hikes and from frivolous or unjust evictions.”
In the housing court waiting room, one tenant after another told me they lived in a brownstone, duplex, or three-unit apartment above a ground-level business. These were the tenants, I realized, who account for the bulk of Cabello’s business; he told me during our first meeting that his clients mostly owned “two-family dwellings,” though the significance of that term hadn’t yet dawned on me. Now that it had, I set out to find some of these tenants.
Cabello was, understandably, less willing to put me in touch with his victims than with his clients. But he was also careless with his paperwork, which he left spread across his desk during our interviews. Occasionally, I’d glimpse a name and an address, which I’d have to read upside down, since the papers faced away from me. I wrote down as many as I could, and after compiling a short list, I started knocking on doors. I began with José Torres.
The building on Fulton Street was close enough to Quick Evic’s office that I worried Cabello might hear us shouting to each other. “The intercom is broken,” Torres yelled down from the window of his apartment. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
I shouted up at him, “I’m a journalist reporting on eviction, and I’ve just learned that you’re about to be thrown out of your apartment. Can we talk?”
He asked me to wait a few minutes, then met me on the sidewalk in front of the building. His apartment was small and messy, he said, but if I didn’t mind walking with him to a neighborhood branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, we could talk along the way. Torres is a few years younger than Cabello, but he looks older. He walked slowly because of nerve damage from diabetes, which has left his legs plump and purple.
By the time I found him, Torres had already received his eviction notice. His new landlord had been direct with him: Despite the fact that he paid his rent, Torres and all the other tenants in the building would have to go because the landlord wanted to make a fresh start, with all new tenants.
“I understand that he wants me to move out, and I definitely should move out, just because he’s the new landlord and I need to respect his wishes,” Torres said. “The only thing that’s holding me back is that I have funding from a city housing program, so I need to find a new apartment where the landlord is willing to deal with that program.”
The voucher program he used helped New Yorkers living in homeless shelters find permanent housing. Torres resided in a shelter for a year before he moved into the apartment on Fulton Street.
“I’m probably going to end up back there while I look for a new apartment,” he said. “It’s very hard to get out of those places, because everything is working against you. You spend weeks filling out applications, then while you’re waiting for landlords to call you back, someone steals your cell phone while you’re asleep.”
At the library Torres collected two books he had on reserve, and then we headed back toward his apartment. Recently, I stopped by his building again, but no one answered the buzzer. The apartment that had freed him from life in a homeless shelter was once again vacant, and the cell phone number he gave me no longer worked. I walked to Quick Evic, where I found Cabello sitting in his office. I asked him what he thinks New York City will look like in five or 10 years.
“You know what scares me?” he answered. “Sometimes you see a place like San Francisco, California, and you got all these people living in the streets, and people who are well-to-do, making $60,000, are sleeping in their car, joining a gym so they can shave and take a shower in the morning…. I’m afraid that’s what New York is going to be like.”
For a moment, I stared straight through Cabello. Just as I was about to remind him of his role in all this, he added, “Someday, one of those developers is gonna hire a big law firm to come and evict me.”
Joshua Hunt is a journalist and the author of University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education.
Co-published with The Nation.