Where the City’s Marshals Get Their Power

These city appointees, who enforce evictions and earn their incomes from fees, are once again emerging as symbols of housing insecurity.

By Sandra McDaniel
An image from RetroReport

The threat of pandemic-related evictions is looming, despite a Trump administration moratorium that runs through Dec. 31. Across the country, the task of enforcing eviction orders often falls to sheriffs' departments. But in New York City, city marshals — officials who have been likened to everything from repo men to bounty hunters — form a crew that supplements the work of sheriffs.

Since the tenant-organized rent strikes of the 1930's, marshals have long been the face of eviction in New York. Those Great Depression-era strikes sometimes turned confrontational as tenants saw neighbors thrown out of their houses and into the streets. Now sheriffs and marshals are in the spotlight again, in news stories as well as in our own reporting examining their role.

Who are New York City's marshals? Why are they sometimes targets for anger, both from renters and city officials?

Debt Collection With Roots in 17th-Century Dutch Colonial New York

Marshals are a tough bunch to get on record. That may have to do with the often less than flattering coverage they've received in the past.

They've been a fixture of New York life since 1655, when the region was a Dutch colony. While not technically law enforcement officers, they carry badges; they are not salaried city employees but are appointed by mayors to five-year terms as independent contractors, regulated by the Department of Investigation.

Sheriffs perform similar tasks to marshals, most notably evictions, but unlike them, sheriffs are salaried employees of the state. Marshals are self-employed, paid by entities like landlords, banks and utility companies to collect on a debt, known as “poundage.” Their tasks include towing cars for unpaid parking tickets and enforcing residential evictions.

Perhaps less well known is their power to collect on civil court judgments. Those collections can pay exceptionally well, with some marshals routinely outearning a mayor several times over, depending on their collection haul for the year. Payouts reaching millions of dollars are not unusual, stemming from a rate of 5 percent on judgments. But it's not the large windfall it might seem: marshals pay a percentage of their gross revenue to the city and are responsible for overhead and office administration, including staff salaries.

Why are they controversial?

Several New York mayors have explored abolishing marshals or simply not appointing new marshals to fill vacancies. City rules allow for up to 83 marshals to serve at one time. Their high payouts have drawn the scrutiny of the press and some mayoral administrations, periodically raising the question of whether this holdover from Colonial times best serves New York City.

Through the years, some city and state officials have called to abolish the position as a relic of those times and political patronage. Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg reportedly liked the idea of privatizing collection-gathering.

Critics assert that marshals, who set their own workloads and hours, profit from evictions and have incentives to complete as many as possible. The New York Post reported one marshal as a top earner in 2010 with a $5 million haul.

But some long-serving marshals, like Ruth Burko, see themselves as performing a public service. Ms. Burko, who was appointed in 1967, retired in 2017 at age 91. The positions she held as city marshal and community board member “give me the opportunity to serve the community, my friends, and my neighbors, whom I have coexisted with for so many years,” Ms. Burko told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.

Why do they matter now?

New York State’s eviction moratorium ended Oct. 12, and housing court has resumed for some qualifying cases, as it has some other states. The Department of Investigation confirms that marshals can now return to processing evictions though a city directive notes there are important exceptions.

Nationally, there has been a groundswell of the kinds of actions that recall rent strikes of the 1930s, when tenants defied city officials and landlords by returning evicted neighbors and their belongings back into their homes. One tenant association in the Bronx, the borough with the highest rate of evictions, engaged in a strike as the pandemic hit and started to affect jobs. Today, an eviction protest might involve blocking traffic with furniture.

Or activists might lock the doors of a housing court.

A new app called Civvl has emerged, connecting process servers and eviction crews directly with law firms, plaintiffs, landlords and property owners in some cities, and spawning confusion and outrage on social media.

During one recent demonstration calling for rent relief, a group marched to the office of one of Brooklyn’s marshals, protesting the threat of evictions in the age of a pandemic.

This article is part of Retro Report’s “Hitting Home”, a multicity, multiplatform reporting project that examines the process and impact of evictions, providing historical context for the nation’s growing lack of affordable, safe housing. Want to stay up to date on this reporting project? Follow us here, subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.