The Tale of Two Housing Courts

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jackson Houses in the Bronx, public housing, NYCHA Jackson Houses in the Bronx. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

In New York City's housing court, 90% of tenants facing an eviction do not have legal representation, while 98% of landlords do. Mark D. Levine, Council Member from NYC's 7th District, discusses his proposal to increase funding for low-income tenants who end up in housing courts.



Mark D. Levine

Comments [44]

E.M. from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

Some fellow tenants and I nearly took our landlord to housing court for not heating our building for two months in 2012. Our building, which is rent stabilized, has a variety of tenants, both relatively recent arrivals like myself and my roommate, and people who have lived in the building for years. When the lack of heat began during Hurricane Sandy, we called our building's management office. The receptionist told us that it was a problem with our unit's radiators and that we would have to call them super so he could fix it. When we called him, he told us it was a problem with the building's boiler that management needed to fix. Yet management insisted it was just our unit. We filed a 311 complaint and went online to look at other complaints for our building. There had been several around the same time as ours. (Nothing happened because the 311 inspector would come without telling us while my roommate and I were at work and would then close our ticket.)

At this point, right before Christmas, I slipped a letter under each apartment door asking others in my building to call me if they were having similar problems. I got many calls. My super confronted me telling me that my landlord was not happy for organizing my building and being a rabble rouser. I found that both intimidating and outrageous--what else did they expect us to do?

Meanwhile, my roommate myself, and a couple of the other tenants began keeping detailed records of the temperature of our apartment. We wanted to take action but were reasonably worried we'd get put on the blacklist, which my roommate had found out about from a housing law nonprofit hotline. I went to investigate my options at Brooklyn housing court, waiting a good portion of a day I had to take off of work to speak to the one lawyer who was is supposed to answer tenant questions.

This lawyer, told me that "blacklist" was not the right term for it, and that it would be my right to ask any future landlord whether s/he uses such a list. Of course, as anyone renting in New York knows, if I challenge a landlord over whether s/he is using such a blacklist, s/he can easily go with one of the many other people clamoring for his/her apartment.

My roommate and I wrote our landlords a certified letter telling them we were prepared to take legal action if heat wasn't provided. Our building manager, who had been unreachable or evasive before, finally paid us a visit and very nicely told us he would fix the boiler--the source of the problem--promptly, and he did. On New Year's Day of 2013, we had heat.

What I learned from the experience is that there is a reason why landlords take so long to address things like leaks, heating issues, expired smoke detectors, caved in ceilings, etc. There is very little accountability. We always paid our rent in full and on time--that was not the problem. It is for this reason that I applaud Rep. Levine and his efforts and ask that more be done to fix this system.

Mar. 31 2014 09:03 PM

Sounds like a scam to help create government jobs for all those law school graduates who can not find work.

Mar. 30 2014 01:03 PM
james fishman from Manhattan

I have been a tenant lawyer in NYC for 34 years. I have been deeply engaged in the issue of tenant blacklisting for the past 12 years and have sued several national tenant screening bureaus for violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Tenant blacklisting is a very real problem and prevents many people from renting an apartment simply because they were sued by a previous landlord, regardless of the outcome. This video illustrates the problem:

Mar. 28 2014 01:05 PM
E Vauchee from Brooklyn

Many years ago, 1978. I was a 43 year old divorced, single mother and recent college grad, when I was legally evicted in the Brooklyn Court. I had a job, about 16K, when 3 people bought the brownstone I had been living in. I think Legal Aid said I made too much for them to help me. I was very green, proud of graduating with honors, & managing my life ok. These people called me several times offering me maybe between ! & 2 thousand dollars to leave. This was a lot of money for me, I had no cushion whatsoever, just my salary. But I had low rent , the neighborhood was great for my child & her school, I was afraid of what might happen to us. I did not have a lease at that time, none of us in the building did.
I was served a summons to appear in court. The court setup was I was not able to say anything in my defense, I was hoping to get compensation for moving expenses. It was very clear that the judge & the attorney for the new landlords were acquainted, I got nothing except an order to vacate within 6 months. I was dumbfounded that the judge did not know anything abut my circumstances and did not care. The new landlords gave me a bottle of wine!

Mar. 28 2014 12:31 PM

I have worked in the housing court as a court employee. The court itself is understaffed by the state's Office of Court Administration.Housing judges work much, much harder than say Supreme Court judges but are paid at a lower rate. A light day for one of the housing judges is a calendar of 60 cases!
Yes, you do get honest people who might be going through a rough patch BUT I can say withour a doubt at least half of the tenants coming into housing court are "professional tenants." They use the system to get over. They know they can get lots of time to try and get some agency to pay their rent. The court will give them many, many chances to get help while the landlord has to provide all services even though they are not getting rental income to cover their costs.
Some tenants destroy the apartment so they can screw the landlord for taking them to court. Then they go to court for the repairs. The court doesn't care that the tenant destroyed the apartment and the landlord now has the additional expense of making the required repairs.You might not want to think it but in reality their are alot of undesirable tenants. They rely on the system to provide them with alternatives.
How about requiring classes in how to be a responsible, desirable tenant BEFORE providing assistance. How about some of these housing programs setting standards/guidelines for the tenants it intends to service. How about making sure tenants who are supposed to pay a portion of their rent from their own income do it.
Do you really think the average landlord wants to spent time/money in housing court? They would have more money for building up keep if they didn't have to spend it on attorney fees in housing court.

Mar. 28 2014 11:45 AM

I represent poor tenants in housing court for a non-profit legal services organization and therefore get to see a lot of what goes on in NYC housing court. Saying that the L&T court bends over backwards for tenants is laughable.
For those who talk about the basic nonpayment cases, it is important to note that unrepresented tenants are often at a huge disadvantage and end up signing agreements that they often do not understand. Many landlord's attorneys do not explain that they represent the landlord and try to appear as if they work for the court. They write up one-sided stipulations which they then pressure tenants to sign. The tenants often feel like they have no choice but to sign what's in front of them and don't understand that they might be able to get a more fair agreement, or that they have a right to a trial. I've seen cases where a landlord's attorney sued the same tenant twice for the same rent and received a judgment with a warrant of eviction each time. Oftentimes, the judges are not making sure that the tenants actually understand what they are agreeing to pay.

Mar. 28 2014 11:38 AM
Adele from Upper West Side

We need more affordable housing in New York City. A good model of truly affordable housing are Mitchell Lama cooperatives that were built in the sixties and seventies. These are extremely stable communities but they need help from our elected officials like Mark Levine to preserve affordable housing units without even spending money or putting a shovel into the ground. We need to ban privatization by upgrading regulations at HPD (NYC) and HCR (NYS) AND changing state laws.

Mar. 28 2014 11:31 AM
Nina from Brooklyn

I won a case in housing court a few years ago against a landlord in a rent regulated apartment who had failed so egregiously to make repairs that my bathroom ceiling had fallen in twice (once after being repaired with paper) and I had to take an umbrella to the bathroom with me for months to avoid gross things dripping on me. I withheld six months rent and eventually won the right to non-payment when he initiated eviction proceedings. However I spent HOURS of time documenting my attempts to get him to make repairs, calling Housing on a daily basis to file complaints, staying home to wait for housing inspectors who never showed up, and taking and printing date-stamped photos of the apartment. The landlord tried to intimidate me into paying rent, intimidate me into moving out, and intimidate me into not filing more complaints.

I would like to note that I have a PhD and teach courses on legal studies and previously worked on a pro se representation program in another legal context, and yet I nonetheless found it to be confusing and intimidating to go to Brooklyn housing court without an attorney. The system was not really designed to adequately support pro se tenants, even highly educated, articulate ones.

The following things made it obvious that there is inadequate support for tenants:

1. The LANDLORD's attorney tried to tell me he was representing me -- and I observed this happening repeatedly. The landlord's attorney would approach the tenant and say he/she was working on the tenant's case. Many tenants were confused and thus coerced into agreements that were unfavorable for them.

2. The landlord's attorney had a relationship with the court staff and would engage in tactics to try to make it difficult for me to hold my ground -- they regularly moved my case to the last one one the docket of the day, the landlord's lawyer would come late, or he would request last minute changes.

3. Because so few tenants have adequate (e.g. more than one time) representation, most housing court cases appear to be settled rather than having the kind of trial/ hearing that would result in new case law. Thus, there is little good precedent for a lot of the messy situations I observed occurring.

4. Even though I won the right to non-payment for the money I had withheld (the judge persuaded the landlord attorney to agree not to seek the money after reviewing my evidence), it was with the stipulation that I agree to move out of the apartment so they could purportedly make repairs and finally remove the mold from the unit.

It didn't really feel like a win.
And I'm pretty sure if I HAD secured counsel, I wouldn't have won much more, and I would have spent a bunch of money on a lawyer with less time than I had to invest in assembling all the evidence.

Mar. 28 2014 11:29 AM
Ken from Bronx

To Amy from Manhattan, who wrote:

"Ken: Or maybe it's because people who can't afford their rent can't afford a lawyer either."

Of course. But if they cannot afford the rent, why must I provide them with a free home? The government should house them, or give them a voucher to pay their rent.

We do not require Macy's or H&M to give poor people free clothing!
We do not require farmer's to give people free food!
We do not require teachers to teach poor kids for free!

--> But if you own an Apartment, YOU are expected to solve the homeless problem.

IF we want to solve the homeless problem, let's raise taxes on EVERYBODY and solve it. Don't make landlords bear the entire cost alone.

Mar. 28 2014 11:28 AM
Melissa from Brooklyn

The issue of the private home owner is not addressed, these landlord laws seem to favor big management companies. I have been trying to evict a tenant from my two family home since August of last year. I filed a holdover proceeding and I am not even asking for back rent. I came to an agreement with the tenant to move out this Januray. It is now March and she has filed so many orders to show cause. This legal system is a joke. I give up, house now up for sale.

Mar. 28 2014 11:27 AM
jF from A nightmare dystopia called america


Mar. 28 2014 11:25 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

@Sarah, I agree with the first part of your comment, the second part - not as much. Landlords, as dubious as many may be, are not charities.

Mar. 28 2014 11:24 AM
Sue from West Village

I live in a rent stabilized building in the West Village that has recently been bought by new landlords. They are doing everything (inhumanely) possible to flush every tenant from this building. There are a few that rent out their apartments illegally, and I understand why the landlord would want them out. But the bulk of us are quiet, long-time tenants that pay our rent on time consistently. They have done everything from making themselves completely inaccessible, cutting off services, installing cameras in front of each apartment door, sending around spies that knock on our doors to ask if we would be interested in subletting our apartments for huge amounts of money (another tactic to entrap people). It has been a complete nightmare, and I wanted to tell the story on air so that people understood that there are MANY, MANY cases of pure landlord harassment, not simply non-payment of rent cases.

Mar. 28 2014 11:24 AM
john from Manhattan

The caller that talks about being blacklisted is absolutely right. I applied for an apartment and was denied because my name was listed on the Housing Court records. I never set foot in the Housing Court but apparently at one point in my life a Landlord had an action against me. I was not able to get any of the details from the report nor was I able to dispute the case. There needs to be reform in the housing court system.

Mar. 28 2014 11:22 AM
Ken from Bronx

I also own property in another state where evictions are easy.

In these places, if a person has had hard times, or is getting back on their feet, I will take a chance on them and rent to them. I know that if they fail, it will not cost me 6 months rent.

But in NYC, evictions are so difficult, you CANNOT take a chance.

It is easier to divorce a spouse in NYC than evict a tenant!

So you must do heavy credit checks and demand huge deposits and co-signers. Also only rent to people with advanced degrees who are more employable.

I am in favor of Rent Stabilization because it creates stable communities. But if someone fails to pay the Stabilized rent, they are abusing the system and should be evicted QUICKLY.

Mar. 28 2014 11:20 AM
Rick from Brooklyn


In reference to Tenant Blacklist

"Tenant Fair Chance Act

As of February 2010, the City Council passed legislation that requires management companies, broker’s offices or Landlords who are renting an apartment in a building with more than 5 units are required to notify prospective tenants of whether or not they use tenant screening reports. The law mandates that these companies or groups post visibly in their officesthe name of the tenant screening bureau used and the address of that company. If the management company/ landlord or brokers use written applications, they must include in writing 1) whether or not they use a tenant screening report, 2) if so, what company they use, and 3) how to contact that office so that a tenant can request a free annual copy of their report. With this information, a tenant can obtain a copy of their report and attempt to clear up any erroneous information on their record before applying for future housing. You can find a copy of the Tenant Fair Chance Act here"

Mar. 28 2014 11:20 AM
Carl from Manhattan from NYC

Anyone who has been to Housing Court knows that the judges bend over backwards to assist unrepresented tenants. A "professional tenant," can drag out an eviction case for years, without paying a dime, if they know how to play the system. Assisting litigants in getting lawyers is a noble goal, but the Housing Court system in NYC is so skewed towards the tenant as it is, it's hardly the place to make this point.

Mar. 28 2014 11:19 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

The system is being abused on both sides. I've seen everything, from former tenants now living in Florida, illegally renting out their rent-stabilized apts to landlords illegally trying to kick people out of their apts, especially in gentrifying areas.

Mar. 28 2014 11:19 AM
jf from DYSTOPIA


Mar. 28 2014 11:19 AM

My wife and I had a terrible experience with our previous landlord who refused to return our security deposit. We left the apartment in great condition (and documented it), but we think our landlord just didn't have the money to pay us, so made up a story to not pay us (they are also very mean spirited...) We lost over $2,000. We are afraid that going to small claims court will just be a waste of time, even if the judge rules in our favor if she doesn't have the money to pay. Also afraid about having the court appearance on our record and how it will affect our renting from landlords down the road...and representing ourselves in court!

Mar. 28 2014 11:19 AM

"Tenant court check"?!?!?!


Don't you absolutely LOVE this TOTALLY LANDLORD-GAMED system?!?!?

Mar. 28 2014 11:18 AM
Sarah from Brooklyn

I think rent stabilized is a misnomer in New York.

In a neighborhood that is gentrifying, if there has been a lot of turnover in a building historically, for whatever reason, the legal rent can outpace the market. Then landlords charge a preferential rent to get tenants into apartments and when the market starts to go up in the neighborhood, they can get rid of a tenant by legally offering a renewal lease with the legal rent that no one would ever pay. (For example, the legal rent on my 1BR in a gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn is about 1900, and 1BRs are advertized on Craigslist right now at about 1300.)

What I suggest is that if landlords offer a renewal lease at an outsized rent to get rid of a long-standing tenant, they should be OBLIGED to offer that unit at that rate to a new tenant, and if they rent it for less than they offered a long-standing tenant, the original tenant should be eligible for compensation.

This would take away the option of bullying tenants out of their apartments to 'renovate' and/or convert to more bedrooms.

I think this would really mitigate some of the worst cases in the system of slumlords who are looking to cash in.

Mar. 28 2014 11:18 AM

Did I just hear that Public schools are 30% more expensive than Charter schools while achieving similar if not better results? With a public school operating budget of nearly $20 billion it seems that by operating the entire NYC school system like charter schools we will end up with a 30% reduction in wasted spend. This would would leave $6 billion a year to spend on improving the system, special needs kids, art and music, and supplies.

Mar. 28 2014 11:17 AM
Sue from Manhattan

(1) The median income for rent regulated apartments is about $39,000.

(2) Tenant blacklist should eliminate all tenants WHO WIN.
Attorney James Fishman is fighting it.

Mar. 28 2014 11:16 AM
Lena from Brooklyn

I am a tenant who is fully paid up on my rent, always pay on time, and have all the documentation to prove it. Yet my landlord is trying to evict me because I'm in a rent-stabilized apartment. He makes up all sorts of crazy accusations that I need to disprove over and over again. This sort of thing happens all the time. Luckily I have a lawyer, otherwise I wouldn't know how to defend myself and I might be out on the street unfairly.

Mar. 28 2014 11:16 AM

Housing in NYC is CRIMINAL!!

Mar. 28 2014 11:15 AM
jf from rent dystopia

Tghe state does not need to make money from property taxes. The government should in reality just pay for anything they need with new money. Make inflation illegal especially rent.

Mar. 28 2014 11:13 AM
Amy from Manhattan

To Ken calling in: Especially in the current economy, you can vet tenants all you want & they can lose their jobs & *become* unable to pay their rent. You sound as though you think people deliberately rent apts. they can't afford.

Mar. 28 2014 11:12 AM
jf from new york rent gouging hell

The price of rent in new york is CRIMINAL GOUGING. The rent and property values are insane! It's on the verge of revolution.

Mar. 28 2014 11:11 AM
eddie from nyc

I love this landlord, he is justifying the fact that he is a piece of you know what.

He will rent only to the richest tenants he can get. that BS about about taking less wealthy people is nonsense. he will not take a poorer tenant when he can get a richer one.

Mar. 28 2014 11:10 AM

Screw these GREEDY bast*rds!!

Mar. 28 2014 11:10 AM
Erin from Brooklyn

Ken from the Bronx is clearly a landlord or landlord's attorney.

Let's not forget that in additional to rent strike and essential services issues that can often get raised in non-payment proceedings, landlords use these proceedings to harass tenants they don't like or want to get rid of. In addition, it is well known that landlords will blacklist tenants who have sued or been sued in housing court whether they were in the right or not.

The public policy issue is that even when tenants have fallen behind in rent, usually with an attorney an agreement on arrears can be reached where there's an attorney and eviction can be avoided; whereas without an attorney often the only resolution is eviction (and then the landlord doesn't get paid at all and the public bears the brunt of the eviction).

Mar. 28 2014 11:09 AM
john from office

Does Mr. Levine own any property??

Mar. 28 2014 11:09 AM
james from nyc

The "housing court helping attorney" that called, with the years of experience, must have done a real banged up job in that one day he represented a poor tenant.

Mar. 28 2014 11:08 AM
chris from brooklyn

What about the NYC "blacklist?" If a tenant appears in Housing Court their name becomes a part of the public record. If this tenant applies for a new apt the new potential landlord can do the research, find this person's name in the record and decide not to rent to them. This discourages countless people from taking landlords to court as well.

Mar. 28 2014 11:08 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Ken: Or maybe it's because people who can't afford their rent can't afford a lawyer either.

Mar. 28 2014 11:07 AM
fuva from harlemworld

PLEASE, ask Paul the name of the program.

Mar. 28 2014 11:06 AM
Jack from nyc

Landlords own the building and they own the tenant..

Why is this man trying to flip that equation on its head....

and with gentrification in lots of the areas in NYC, you need to kick tenants out, period. And that means that the landlords need to harass the tenants out their building.

providing attorneys will make the landlords harassment harder. It is not fair.

Mar. 28 2014 11:06 AM
Caesar Romaine from Manhattan

Why isn't this done through private charity? The public doesn't need to fund yet another jobs program for bureaucrats and lawyers.

Mar. 28 2014 11:04 AM
Ted in Brooklyn from Brooklyn

I would like to correct the councilman on one matter: low-income new yorkers are afforded attorneys in family court matters. This includes the mother, father, guardian, and children themselves.

Mar. 28 2014 11:03 AM
Ken from Bronx

Let's avoid "sampling on the dependent variable".

Most tenants don't have lawyers because they know they have NO CASE. They didn't pay the rent, and now they are being evicted.

Why pay a lawyer if you know that you are going to eventually lose?

I am talking about straight-up "Non-Payment of Rent" cases, which are the VAST majority of cases in NYC housing court.

Mar. 28 2014 10:40 AM
landless from Brooklyn

The problem is a lack of supply, too few apartments in the state's major employment center. Employers need to relocate upstate where there are high vacancy rates and high unemployment.

Mar. 28 2014 10:37 AM
Ken from Bronx

Let's avoid "sampling on the dependent variable".

Most tenants don't have lawyers because they know they have NO CASE. They didn't pay the rent, and now they are being evicted.

Why pay a lawyer if you know that you are going to eventually lose?

I am talking about straight-up "Non-Payment of Rent" cases, which are the VAST majority of cases in NYC housing court.

Mar. 28 2014 10:35 AM
Ken from Bronx

Landlords are more likely to bring a lawyer to housing court because landlords have more to lose! Consider:

** 1) The landlord is facing a loss of current rent, back rent, and *future* rent. If the landlord loses the case the judge has the power to rule that the tenant gets to stay for FREE! (A tenant who is behind on rent will often damage the unit to create bogus Housing Department violations.)

** 2) But the tenant has been not paying rent and is living for free. They know that they will eventually lose the case because the facts aren't on their side. They just need to drag the process out as long as possible. Each delay is another month of Free Rent.

I am talking about straight-up "Non-Payment of Rent" cases. If a tenant is paying rent, they deserve much more consideration.

Non-paying tenants make a mockery of our Rent Stabilization system. Non-payers make landlords less likely to rent to regular people and more likely to ask for huge deposits, stringent credit-checks, and high incomes before renting.

Mar. 28 2014 10:14 AM

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