When The Rent Comes Due in de Blasio’s New York

To his credit, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio did what he said he would do. Unfortunately, it was a misguided idea to begin with, the sort of shallow idea that would be adored by the superficial who failed to grasp that it was ointment on a wound while the underlying infection was festering. The wound will heal. The patient will die. And all the deeply empathetic will wonder how this could possibly happen.

Defending yourself in court might work in old movies or on reality TV, when the stakes are small and the judge is named Judy.

Apparently, no one on the New York Times editorial board spends enough time on twitter, where everyone knows everything there is to know about law. And should an actual lawyer chime in to, you know, suggest that the fringes on the flag really don’t change things, they’re gonna get slammed. Damn lying lawyers. On the other hand, lawyers that feed the trending social justice feelz are loved and get lots of followers for their gushing. That they’re wrong concerns no one. Validation has never been as deeply appreciated as it is on social media.

But in real life, in the face of dire circumstances — like being tossed from your home into the street — you need a lawyer. That’s why it was so important that the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday a big increase in funding for legal services for tenants facing eviction in housing court.

The city already spends $62 million annually on civil legal services for tenants, as part of Mr. de Blasio’s larger push to preserve New York’s housing affordability. (In an age of skyrocketing rents, keeping people from losing their homes can be as important as building new moderately priced apartments.) Mr. de Blasio would increase that amount each year over the next five years — from an additional $15 million in the 2018 fiscal year to an additional $93 million in the 2022 fiscal year, for a total of $155 million that year.

Even in New York City, that’s a lot of money sucked out of taxpayers pockets. But isn’t it worth it, because tenants with lawyers are better able to defend themselves from eviction by evil landlords?

Even as affordable housing grows scarcer and the gentrification tide makes many New Yorkers feel doomed to dislocation, one weapon for tenants has always been obvious, if expensive: lawyers. Landlords have deeper pockets than tenants, and they are often vicious in the tactics they use to forcibly, often illegally, clear renters out for redevelopment and gentrification.

The vast majority of housing court cases are for nonpayment of rent. Landlords rent apartments. Tenants pay rent to live there. When they stop paying rent, the landlord is required to go to housing court for an order of eviction. Paying lawyers to represent the tenants won’t change the fact that they have failed to pay rent, but they may well prevent eviction by claiming violations exist in the apartments. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Some landlords are scum. Some landlords are just people who rent apartments for a living.

Landlords aren’t inherently evil. Neither are tenants. But the symbiotic relationship requires that both do their parts to fulfill the lease. The vilification of one side undermines the necessary relationship.

Not all landlords are named Snidely Whiplash. They don’t break into tenant’s apartments at night and put holes in their walls. They don’t put bad stuff into toilets and keep flushing until the water overflows and floods the apartment below. They just want to provide an apartment and get paid rent every month.

There is gentrification in weird places in the city, where hipsters suddenly find it cool to live even though none of them would have been so bold as to walk there at night a few years ago. The landlords enjoy the benefit of gentrification, rising rents as mommy and daddy cover the cost of their little bearded darling’s venture toward adulthood when he can find the time between signing petitions at change.org and emotive Facebook rants against the machine.

Owning a building isn’t a charity. It’s not landlords’ duty to provide affordable housing. It’s a business. If it wasn’t, no one would do it. If it’s not a profitable business, then landlords find something else to do. And if tenants don’t pay their rent, it won’t be profitable. This isn’t brain surgery.

Having spent more than a few evenings discussing economics and world affairs at a bar in uptown Manhattan with the downtrodden, it’s become clear that a father of four lovely children doesn’t care whether he’s referred to as black or African-American, whether Beyoncé was robbed by Adele at the Grammys for being too radical, whether there is a building on the campus of Yale University named after Calhoun.

What they want is a decent job where they can make enough money to feed and care for their kids. Pay the rent. Buy food. Buy shoes. They want the dollar menu at McDonalds to stay at a dollar. They want to make it home without some cop from the 34 beating them. They want their kids to live a better life than they did.

And if they can’t find a decent job, they will sell weed on the corner because their kids still need to eat. And if there is no apartment they can afford, they will do whatever they have to do to survive. These are real people, not the fantasy people around whom fantasy solutions arise and fill the hearts of the tearful.

Will the $155 million put into providing lawyers at housing court create jobs? Only for some lawyers, and even then, not good enough jobs to keep even the lawyers going. The fees paid for indigent representation make an assistant manager job at Dairy Queen look financially attractive. If you can’t make a decent living as a lawyer, then why become a lawyer? No matter how passionate you are for social justice, even lawyers have kids who want to eat. Every night. Even passionate baby lawyers grow up someday.

Will the groundlings, who only see the superficial benefits right in front of their faces, applaud de Blasio’s ointment? Maybe. They aren’t always as thoughtful about what serves their long-term interest as anyone else. But when there are no jobs, no work, but hand-wringing over what toilets transgenders can use, and long op-eds over the pain of intersectional black feminists who are traumatized by the privileged patriarchy not appreciating their radical contributions to progressive poetry, there will still be a parent of a hungry child who can’t pay the rent because she doesn’t have a decent job.

If you want to help tenants, Mayor de Blasio, bring business to the city that provides well-paying jobs. Then tenants can afford to pay rent. That’s how to stop evictions.

11 comments on “When The Rent Comes Due in de Blasio’s New York

  1. MonitorsMost

    Scott,
    You’re missing the part where New York has tapped into the spigot of free money for tenants. Cost of landord attorney + X% of tenant attorney fees where recoverable in successful defense + rent for Y months tenant is not paying while eviction proceedings are ongoing = the bribe amount.

    It is cheaper for the landlord to pay the defaulting tenant a bribe to voluntarily leave than it would be to use the eviction process.

    So while it may not decrease the number of displaced tenants, at least they will have $4,000 in their pocket when they walk into the homeless shelter.

    Reply
  2. Liam McDonald

    Scott, you missed your calling. You should have been a sitcom writer. That post was not only spot on but made me burst out laughing on the train.

    I have never understood how they can maintain rent control for such a long time when supply and demand has a much better track record.

    I live in Singapore where housing is shocking yet people can afford it because of low taxes and very low unemployment.

    Reply
  3. PVanderwaart

    “In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude; every man will speak as he thinks, or, more properly, without thinking. and consequently will judge at effects without attending to causes.” – George Washington writing to Lafayette.

    Pretty much the same thinking as your first paragraph.

    Reply
  4. Erik H

    This is a mistake.

    As a housing attorney (in Mass. not NYC) I have become certain that the economists are correct: enhanced tenant protections act to reduce the overall supply of affordable housing, because they give poor incentives for renting. Similarly, enhanced litigation by tenant attorneys will also have the same effect. This is largely because tenant protections combine a very low enforcement rate with an overly large penalty rate in favor of the landlord. I personally know many places which have gone off-market as a result of legal pressures. In fact I have become so convinced that the effects are negative, that I routinely reject profitable tenants-rights cases which rest on ‘unjust loopholes.’

    NYC already makes it incredibly difficult and costly to rent to low-end folks, what with fixed housing rates. And it also makes it very difficult to evict, which disproportionately affects people that rent at the low end (who are more likely not to be able to make rent), which means that folks are desperately trying to get out of the low-end market, and few are trying to get in. Adding more legal penalties to the fire is a stupid idea.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      This is the difference between how things look on the surface and how they look underneath. Sweet ideals conceal the ugly reality below.

      Reply
    1. not an anon

      Have you considered that building maintenance is not only a hard job to begin with, but that we make it harder than it needs to be with the way we construct buildings in this country? IME living in rentals, bad landlording is mostly a case of the overwhelmed, not the evil.

      Reply

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