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.
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.