When Ryo Nagaoka was hospitalized with coronavirus earlier this year, the landlord of his East Village apartment wasted no time changing the locks. After just three weeks, they hired a cleaning company to empty his apartment. His neighbors, assuming he’d passed away, erected a makeshift memorial outside.
But Nagaoka, a 65-year-old restaurant worker, was not dead. On Wednesday night, he returned to his Avenue D apartment to find nearly all of his possessions — aside from his piano and his pet tortoise — were gone.
“They thought he died,” neighbor Sierra Zamarripa, who’s helping to organize a fundraiser for Nagaoka, told Gothamist. “He came back last night and there were padlocks on the door.”
The Lazarus-like story has prompted an outpouring of support and confusion from East Village residents, and questions over how the property’s owners — who include Alex Rodriguez and mega-investor Barbara Corcoran — justified trashing his belongings so quickly.
Records show that Dan Shapiro purchased the 21-unit Avenue D walk-up in 2018 from ex-Trump fixer Michael Cohen. Corcoran and A-Rod reportedly became part owners in 2019.
In an emailed statement, an attorney for Shapiro told Gothamist that the tenant was hospitalized on January 27th after he was discovered incapacitated by the building’s super. The owners made “every effort to locate the Resident,” including making calls to local hospitals and the city, but claimed they couldn’t find him. On February 17, just three weeks later, the apartment was cleaned by an outside company hired by the landlord, according to attorney Mitchell Kossoff.
“The few salvageable possessions were saved for the Resident in hopes of his return,” the statement continued. “Also, the Resident’s pet tortoise remained in the apartment and was cared for by the landlord’s agents until the Residents return [sic].”
Multiple neighbors told Gothamist that Nagaoka had not received any of his most important possessions as of Thursday afternoon. “He has no shoes, no toothbrush, no documents or ID, no passport, no fridge or stove,” Valentina wrote in his GoFundMe. “What the management has done is so inhumane and I’m pretty sure very illegal.” (Nagaoka could not be reached for comment).
Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said the actions did in fact appear to violate the law. “It’s not up to the landlord to decide if someone is coming back,” she said. “You’re not allowed to clear out someone’s apartment because you think they’re not there.”
Even without the ongoing eviction moratorium, it’s illegal for landlords to “lock-out” tenants without going through the housing court process, Davidson emphasized.
“They’re referring to the property they stole from him as being ‘salvageable’ because they’re starting to build their case that his possessions weren’t up to their standards,” she added. “It’s shocking.”
Neighbors pitched in on Thursday to lend Nagaoka a mattress, and to ensure he had other necessities, including blankets and food. They said his health is much better than it was when he was hospitalized earlier this year.
Cea Weaver, an organizer for the tenants rights group Housing Justice for All, said the story was “symbolic of landlords getting really desperate in the face of the eviction moratorium.”
“A-rod doesn’t need more money,” she added. “People just believe that renters are less than them.”
Inquiries to Rodriguez and Corcoran were not returned.