Housing Court Judges Aren’t Ordering Repairs Fast Enough

illustration of a bent gavel and twisted judge gavel on a background of apartment buildings.

Photo-Illustration: Curbed/Getty Images

During the pandemic, Joyce Webster was bitten twice by a rat in her Crown Heights studio. The rodents entered through holes in the walls, ate his food and left droppings. She told her landlord about it, but when he didn’t fix the problem, she spent $500 on poison and stuff to plug the holes, a big expense on her fixed income. (His landlord said he sent an exterminator to his apartment, but it was too cluttered to fix.) Meanwhile, the rats continue to find their way.

But it’s just the latest in Webster’s long-running fight for basics like a stove and cooking gas. In February, the building’s boiler broke and left it without heat; it still does not work. A few weeks ago it only had hot water, not cold. The 58-year-old’s apartment is “infested” with cockroaches, she said, and there is mold all over her bathroom, which she attributes to her asthma. Her landlord said he would send someone to deal with the mold in early July, although he accused her of making up trouble. “I did everything correctly and according to the law, and I am ready to correct any problem, even if it may be fabricated or done maliciously,” he said.

A dead rat in Joyce Webster’s apartment.
Photo: Joel Feingold of the Crown Heights Tenants Association

The situation was so stressful that Webster began seeing a psychiatrist. She also took her landlord to housing court. She has done it before with other owners. But this time, his case progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace through the courts.

Each time Webster and his attorney logged into the virtual hearings, they faced a different judge, each saying he couldn’t hear the motion because he was new to the case and would adjourn again. six weeks. Neither the case she filed in September 2020 nor the one she submitted in May last year have been resolved. When his attorney sued for contempt of the landlord for failing to make a repair, the judge did not penalize the landlord or give another court date on any other outstanding issues. “Judges – they sit on their butts, and they don’t force owners to do what they’re supposed to do,” Webster said.

It was never easy to get a judge to decide that a New York City homeowner should make repairs. Although there are many courtrooms dedicated to eviction cases, there is usually only one in each borough dedicated to hearing repair and harassment cases brought by tenants against their landlords. . And housing lawyers said the process had all but stalled during the pandemic. At hearings, judges simply schedule cases weeks or months into the future without forcing owners to make fixes in the meantime. Vance Gathing, senior attorney at Legal Services NYC, said that before the pandemic, “we would never expect the court date to be longer than about four weeks.” But during the pandemic, when he filed suits on behalf of disabled veterans who had no heat in the winter, judges set dates for the first hearing two or three months later.

The brown water that Toro lived with for four years.
Photo: Denise Toro

Astoria tenant Denise Toro attended four court hearings after filing for redress in January. Her water had turned a deep, dirty brown after the owners of the building where she had lived for 43 years decided to renovate it. “We talk like coffee,” the 64-year-old said in a thick New York accent. She endured cold showers for four years until this year when she finally sued her landlord to make repairs. But during the hearings, she was not allowed to speak and “the judge just didn’t issue a correction order,” she said. The problem was finally resolved when a plumber carried out the repair in June (unrelated to a court order).

Previously, there was “a sense of urgency for repairs,” said Jennie Stephens-Romero, an attorney at Make the Road New York, which is part of the city’s anti-harassment tenant protection program for homelessness cases. redress and harassment. In the past, judges have ruled that landlords sign settlements with concrete dates for workers to access apartments to make repairs or even set deadlines by which all repairs must be completed. The lawyers tried not to leave the courtroom without these orders.

But since March 2020, Stephens-Romero said she hasn’t gotten a single consent order – a settlement between landlord and tenant that spells out all the repairs to be made and sets a deadline for completion. Rachel Nager, a senior partner at Rozen Law Group, said she hadn’t gotten a consent order “in some time.” Stephens-Romero said he heard landlords complaining in court that they didn’t have the income to make repairs because tenants weren’t paying rent and the eviction moratorium meant they couldn’t expel them. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the judges internalized” that idea, she said.

A committee of housing lawyers formed in early 2021 to try to sort out the process, and members have consistently complained that cases “take so long”, said Zachary Hale, a lawyer who chairs the committee. Many said judges seem unwilling to penalize homeowners who refuse to make court-ordered repairs.

Lucian Chalfen, spokesperson for the New York Court System, said: “An important mission of the New York Housing Court is the enforcement of housing standards, and the judges who serve in HP parties take that mission seriously. “, but he declined to comment on specific cases. He said the Association of Housing Court Judges, which represents these judges, has scheduled “refresher training” on reparations cases in September.

The slow pace of reparations cases in recent years is particularly disconcerting given that the courts could have potentially resolved more while the state’s eviction moratorium was in place. With the lifting of the moratorium, judges who were available to handle reparations cases are back to rule on evictions, leaving only one courtroom in most boroughs dealing with reparations. Brooklyn is the exception, where supervising judge Cheryl J. Gonzales added a courtroom. But that’s just one more location in a jurisdiction – compared to nine deportation locations.

The lifting of the eviction moratorium has also diverted lawyers from redress and harassment cases to helping overstretched colleagues under the Right to Counsel program. There was a 900 percent increase in the Bronx, tenants faced eviction without legal representation in March, and in April, attorneys with rights to counsel in Queens said they could not accept new clients. The city began asking lawyers from the Tenant Harassment Protection Program to take them on. That’s what happened at Stephens-Romero’s office, and the city asked him and his team to take on even more cases in July.

This leaves many tenants to fight their repair cases on their own. JustFix, a nonprofit that creates online tools for housing issues, created an app early in the pandemic that allowed tenants to file from their phones. It was used by about 3,000 people within a year. But that only worked because the court waived the requirement to have the documents notarized. The court has since reinstated this requirement.

Many people cannot simply wait out their legal limbo in unsanitary and unsafe housing until their homes are fixed. Some may decide to leave. “If housing quality suffers because landlords don’t make repairs, tenants evict themselves; they will move,” said Sateesh Nori, executive director of JustFix. These are the types of departures that are not included in official eviction statistics.

For her part, Webster has no plans to move out of the apartment she’s lived in since 1985. “People tell me to get out of here,” she said. But her rent is cheap and she loves her neighborhood and the community she’s built. “That’s why I put up with all that bullshit,” she says.

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