Tenants, Lawyers And Rights

In New York City, a peculiar relationship has long existed between tenants and landlords. There is good and bad on both sides, but they need each other.  There are horror stories about neglectful and abusive landlords, and they’re true. There are horror stories about tenants destroying apartments. As one landlord explained to me, “I don’t take a shit in the hallways of my buildings.” And then there is the most common, most pedestrian of issues, non-payment of rent.

In most places, the payment of rent in exchange for the occupation of an apartment is a pretty acceptable quid pro quo. Not so much in the poorer neighborhoods of New York. When tenants fail to pay rent, often for many months, it raises a new question: what reasons can a tenant offer for their non-payment? New York City has robust protections for tenants, far beyond what a lease provides, as a result of some of the horrific conduct perpetrated by slumlords and disreputable landlords.

The New York Times, in its neo-typically breathless fashion, describes the asymmetry of resolving landlord/tenant disputes.

There are few legal fights more lopsided than landlords suing to evict their lower-income tenants.

In New York City’s housing court, it’s usually a team of lawyers representing the landlord going against a tenant, unrepresented and alone. The claims for eviction vary — the tenant owes months of back rent, or is not named on the lease. If the landlord doesn’t win, very often the tenant is muscled out with threats and harassment.

Teams of lawyers? Hardly. It’s bizarre that the Times feels compelled to start out with such an absurd and flagrant misrepresentation. But the two examples offered, months of back rent or not named on the lease, present a more serious problem. When did paying rent become a suggestion? When did it become an outrage for a landlord to expect the tenant to whom he rented an apartment to be the person residing in the apartment, rather than some wholly unknown, unvetted, individual?

As for the post hoc kicker, tenants being “muscled out with threats and harassment” if the landlord loses in court, there are times when landlords engage in retaliation, but to say it happens “very often” is nonsense. This is the norm:

David James, 60, a truck driver who said he owed his landlord $1,184 for the one-bedroom apartment he has lived in since 1995, was standing in line to get legal forms to respond to eviction papers.

“The landlord said he’d put a lock on my door,” he said. “I find a lock on my door, I’d be out on the street.”

Mr. James, who said it was not the first time he had fallen behind on rent, said other bills were to blame this time. He said a lawyer could explain his situation to the landlord and the court.

In New York City, this constitutes a perfectly reasonable explanation for not paying rent. Consider whether it would be similarly acceptable if Mr. James’ employer told him that he would like to give him his paycheck, but he didn’t have the money because he had other bills. So sorry. We’re all good about this, right?

So New York City has come up with a plan to provide free legal counsel to indigent tenants.

The City Council is considering a bill that would provide free legal representation to anyone facing eviction or foreclosure who has an income of less than twice the federal poverty line. In New York City,that means an individual making below $44,000. Tenants in about 128,000 cases — more than 80 percent of all housing court cases each year — would qualify, according to a report commissioned by the City Bar Association.

Having a lawyer makes all the difference. When tenants represent themselves in court, they end up being evicted almost half the time. With a lawyer, tenants win 90 percent of the time.

There is a cause and effect relationship that the Times glosses over, that the tenants who retain counsel win 90% of the time because their cases aren’t non-payment. If they can afford lawyers, they can also afford rent. The cases are brought for other reasons which are far more disputable.

But the City has chosen to allocate resources to the indigent to provide representation to tenants. A report shows that it will actually cost the city less to do so than housing the evicted, then homeless, in shelters. While the report makes certain assumptions that are highly dubious, that lawyers for indigent tenants will have the same success rate as retained lawyers have in the past, ignoring the nature of the case, there is nothing facially wrong or bad about providing legal counsel to tenants.

It’s definitely true that tenants are unaware of the robust protections New York City provides them. It’s similarly true that tenants are rarely capable of presenting an effective defense. A lawyer will surely help tenants. There is little doubt that a legal battle over one’s home can have a deleterious impact on a family’s life. While there is no constitutional right to counsel in civil proceedings, that doesn’t mean it’s not of critical importance to their lives.

Yet, there has been a perpetually forgotten player in this melodrama. 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.

In trying to level the housing-court playing field, Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed $62 million in the current fiscal year to provide legal help for lower-income tenants, a strategy that has resulted in the lowest eviction rates in a decade. Evictions decreased by 18 percent last year, to 21,988 from 26,857 in 2014. There’s also evidence that landlords are bringing fewer eviction cases because they know they’re more likely to be challenged by a competent lawyer.

This is great news, that evictions are down by 18%. By introducing lawyers into the system on behalf of the indigent, a necessary equalization will give tenants the ability to challenge the bad landlords, the ones who do wrong and deserve to get spanked. That’s what lawyers do, and poor tenants facing disreputable landlords deserve better than to be left floating on their own in the legal sea of New York City’s myriad regulations.

But the good news of legal representation for the maligned and abused poor doesn’t have to come at the expense of the totally proper expectation of landlords that tenants pay rent, be the ones occupying the apartment they leased and not do disgusting things with the toilets or put holes in the walls.

Demonizing landlords, especially with flagrant misrepresentations, isn’t necessary. There is nothing wrong with landlords expecting tenants to uphold their end of the lease. There is nothing wrong with expecting rent to be paid. Landlords have bills to pay too. Landlords are entitled to earn a profit from their investment. Profit is not yet a crime, even in New York.

The Times editorial board should test their social justice thesis the next time they have a luncheon editorial board meeting at Le Bernardin. See if it’s okay with Eric if, when the check comes, they tell him that they would like to pay, but just can’t afford it because they had other bills to pay. No doubt Ripert will be understanding. Maybe they’ll get a free dessert for their sad circumstances.

12 comments on “Tenants, Lawyers And Rights

  1. Kathleen Casey

    I knew a nice but rather dim lady and her husband, who owned rental real estate. Once she mentioned that some tenants would whine that they paid their child support through income executions as their excuse to blow off paying rent. She asked what do I say to them? My answer was “‘it’s not my problem.’ Repeat it. No matter what they say.” Because they would have some back-talk no matter what she said. That type always does.

    1. SHG Post author

      By “that type,” I assume you mean people who believe that they only have to pay their bills when it’s convenient for them. It’s a mindset of entitlement, that obligations are only obligations when it works for them. Otherwise, they are entitled to ignore them.

      1. wilbur

        What would Fred Mertz have said to them?

        How many members of The New York Times editorial board do you suppose have ever owned rental property?

  2. Billy Bob

    There’s landlords, and there’s landlords. Just like cops, exactly: some are good, but most of em are greedy, a$$hole baaastards. So scru them baastard landlords and landlubbin ladies. And bye the way, the ladies are the worst, cause they’re usually insane if not crazy, mostly both.

    In case we did not spell it out: Cops these days are “greedy” for the arrest and subsequent incarceration of anyone they can put the handcuffs on, which would never happen to them or their loved ones,… for the simple reason that,… well, they’re cops–and above the law. Shoot first and ask questions [pretextua] later.

  3. Joel Holmes

    There was an old episode of the New York-based police drama, “Naked City,” which depicted a struggling young actor named “Donnie Benton” (no relation to the current Vancouver, WA-area WA State Senator and Trump spokesman!), who purportedly robbed as many as THREE cabdrivers per day, simply in order to pay his NYC room rent, way back in 1961!! (See “The Fault In Our Stars,” from February 1961, casting a young Roddy McDowell as the criminal actor Donny Benton. Ironically, McDowell went on to become a much bigger star, than did any one of the [now deceased] cast members of “Naked City.”) Of course, this episode ended with a young Paul Burke (“Det. Adam Flint”-a much-used character name on series television), chasing Benton into a fatal fall off of a NYC tenement rooftop-which had previously housed one of the cabdrivers Donny Benton murdered! NYC Landlord-Tenant Law has always indeed been strange-the ONLY U.S. municipality, to retain legal “rent control” since WWII, now several decades into the 21ST Century! Well, there are eight million cases…

      1. Joel Holmes

        I only saw this episode of “Naked City,” on You Tube, back in February 2015. (I was NOT old enough to view the original 1958-63 ABC B+W TV series, when it first aired, and while episodes exist on You Tube, Hulu, etc.-these are extremely rare and are often removed by the series’ copyright owners.) Criminal defense lawyers will enjoy, in particular, the “Naked City” episode, “Prime Of Life,” which depicts both Det. Flint [Paul Burke (1928-2009)] officially witnessing a New York State execution of a guilty, condemned murderer, and Gene Hackman in an early role as a “cynical newspaperman” (according to the episode preview), also witnessing the electrocution at Sing-Sing. (This episode, first broadcast January 4, 1963, allegedly led ABC executives to promptly “execute,” i.e., cancel, the show.) Is there any reason more “Naked City” episodes are NOT available for “free,” on the Internet?

          1. Joel Holmes

            He also played a criminal defense lawyer, for ONE season, in ABC’s 90-minute drama “Arrest + Trial” (1963-64).

  4. Jonathan

    It may be besides your point, but the 90% win rate includes non-profit as well as private lawyers. “Win” is misleading as the rate includes any eviction avoided. It doesn’t fit with the Time’s David v. Goliath narrative but a large part of what poor person’s lawyers do is help tenant’s get benefits or find resources that result in the landlord getting rent arrears. There are definitely people in housing court who are behind on the rent because they made poor choices and feel entitled to be bailed out. But the mine run of nonpayment cases are people who got knocked sideways by an illness, loss of job, or similar event; or people who simply can’t afford to live in the City and repeatedly need assistance. More to your point, as a City we have shifted part of the burden for a social problem (the City has become unaffordable to poor and moderate income people) to landlords who must pay a tax to the landlord-bar and lose the time-value of money to collect rent due. Demonizing landlords doesn’t just support a right to counsel, it’s a nice distraction from the question of whether we should or can do something about the social problem or live with its consequences.

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