tell me your experiences with housing court in nyc
February 27, 2013 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I would like to take my landlord (really, management company, I guess?) to housing court because I haven't had heat for ten days (and counting) and hot water for ~five, and I would like a rent abatement for the days of this month in which my apartment was not inhabitable. Have you taken someone to housing court in NYC? Please tell me your experiences and any advice you have.

My situation: Apparently, the boiler broke. This was Sunday the 17th. No heat and no hot water. I spoke to the management company on Monday, and they promised the issue would be fixed within the next two days. I inquired about a portable boiler that you sometimes see outside an apartment building when an apartment building suffers a situation such as this, and he said "it will be fixed before that could even arrive." So, they brought everyone a space heater. I moved temporarily to a friend's place a few blocks away, because I have two cats and I was uneasy leaving a space heater on while I went to work.

Tuesday, a sign came up that announced the boiler would be fixed on Friday.

Friday, the boiler was not fixed. No heat, no hot water. I called 311, and I left a message on the management company's machine. Someone called me back late that night from a blocked number and said the heat would be on the next day, Saturday, and that the hot water was already back. I asked what time on Saturday, and he wouldn't give me a time, but said he'd call the next day.

Saturday, no heat, no call.

Sunday, no heat, but hot water returned.

Monday, no heat. Monday, a Notice of Violation from the city was posted in the building's atrium, along with angry signs and petitions from tenants.

Tuesday, I went to the building again at 11am or so, and there was heat! So I moved back into my own apartment. By that night, however, the heat was gone again.

What I want: I want to not pay rent for the days my apartment was basically uninhabitable because it was freezing (their space heater, even if I'd used it, was not large enough to heat the entire apartment). I also want the heat turned back on now. My lease stipulates that I am not allowed to withhold rent for any reason, so I figure my option is: housing court.

What I want to know: What was housing court like? It says you don't need a lawyer--I am not a lawyer, but I feel fairly comfortable dealing with Kafkaesque bureaucracy--but do I actually need a lawyer? What will happen when I file, step by step? Tell me your experiences, please. If this is a bad idea, talk me out of it and tell me what else to do. ("Move" is not an option at this point--my lease is up in September and I'll move then, but I really want my $6000 security deposit back and it is iffy I can get it if I break the lease).

What a world.
Thank you.
posted by millipede to Law & Government (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Housing court should be your absolute last resort. Even if you win, many landlords in New York won't rent to tenants who have been involved in housing court cases.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:10 AM on February 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have friends who were in a similar struggle with their own landlord for YEARS*; I don't think they ever went to housing court, but they did file plenty of grievances with the Department of Health. That may be all you need to do - call 311 and tell them that the boiler is crapping out, and ask what recourse you have.

* Their case only went on for years because the landlord was doing a hell of a lot of other things beyond just letting the boiler crap out. He was a serious shitstain, and your landlord is already better than him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 AM on February 27, 2013

Yeah, I was coming in here to say exactly what ocherdraco said. Such cases become easily-accessible public record, and a $50 litigation search report (usually these are only run in cases of property purchases, but not always) will turn up Millipede v. Management Company and all the details. On top of that, it will be ridiculously hard to prove that someone is refusing to rent to you on those grounds. It is a shitty situation, but unless you're planning to purchase your next place, going to housing court against a management company can make it a lot worse.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on February 27, 2013

Also, while you don't need a lawyer, you can be absolutely sure the management company will have one (if not a team.) If you're set on doing this, don't bring a knife to a gunfight.
posted by griphus at 8:18 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's too soon for housing court; like others said, that's a last resort situation. In a situation like yours, you should be calling 311 (or filing heat complaints online) every day and encouraging others in the building to do the same (perhaps print flyers with this info and shove them under the doors). I honestly wouldn't even bother dealing with the management directly anymore; just keep calling the city and getting others to do the same.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:19 AM on February 27, 2013

As for what else to do, I think all you can do is wait. It's almost March, soon it'll not be so outrageously cold, then not cold at all, and then you're good until September.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:28 AM on February 27, 2013

HPD Complaints
posted by jenad at 8:32 AM on February 27, 2013

Not to threadsit, but
1) The link ocherdraco provides discusses blacklisting tenants who have been BROUGHT to housing court, not tenants who brought their landlords. I'm not being evicted and I didn't do anything wrong.

2) Does 311 have the authority to make it so I do not have to pay rent for the days my apartment was uninhabitable? I found no evidence that they do. Correct me if there is indeed evidence that they do. This is my goal here. I want to not pay rent for the days my apartment couldn't be lived in. I know about calling 311 a lot to get the heat back on again; doing it.
posted by millipede at 8:33 AM on February 27, 2013

Even though that link only specifically addresses tenants brought to court for eviction, please believe me that housing court blacklisting is a very real thing regardless of the reason one goes to court. That's just the first link I found.

If you want to escalate beyond calling 311, you really, really, really need to work with a tenants' rights attorney. Navigating landlord disputes in NYC and coming out unscathed (and with financial restitution) is not something I'd attempt without one.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:37 AM on February 27, 2013

From the link above: "If the building owner does not correct violation conditions, tenants may initiate legal action against the landlord in Housing Court. The Court has the authority to order the landlord to correct violations and can assess serious penalties for failure to comply. There is a $45 fee to file the action, which the court may waive if tenants are unable to pay."

Housing Court is the most depressing place in the world. You'd be starting an HP case. Page 12 in this link will explain more.

Also, at least consult with an attorney before you do anything. I believe even if you were successful with a judge's order assessing a fine, you would still need to enforce the judgment.

I keep editing this, I'm sorry. I just want to clarify that I'm not sure you can get money back, and specify that the fines in HP cases go to the City, so judgments and all that are outside of this. These are definitely lawyer questions, or at lease Legal Service hotline questions.
posted by jenad at 8:39 AM on February 27, 2013

I'm not being evicted and I didn't do anything wrong.
This policy change in the New York State Unified Court System is going after a phenomenon called "tenant blacklisting," where landlords basically reject potential tenants whose names are on a list, which says they have been parties in housing court actions. These lists don't say what they've done, or what the situation was, or if the tenant brought the landlord to court, or visa-versa. It just says that the tenant was involved in housing court at some point, and because there's such a high demand for housing in the city, that's often reason enough for landlords to immediately reject an applicant.
Information regarding individual cases will still be available through the Unified Civil Courts' eCourts website and in the Housing Court clerks' offices, but those avenues would require interested parties to actively seek out the information.
- Village Voice
posted by griphus at 8:57 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know more about your landlord than I do (and so do the others in your building--have you spoken to them?)

Why do you think the landlord posted the signs they did? One scenario is that they are trying not to fix the boiler in a timely manner and are intentionally delaying you with misinformation. Another, and in my opinion, a more likely one, is that those who promised to repair the boiler either didn't show up, or are themselves delaying. I own a building in NYC and find it not the easiest thing in the world to get repairs done. You were inconvenienced (as was your landlord) but didn't have to pay for a hotel or anything like that, and you didn't have to move all your stuff out. What it comes down to is your relationship with your landlord, such as it is. You may see him/her as essentially some evil person who should be punished, and perhaps that is accurate, but I don't have the data. But I am here to tell you that not all landlords are evil and that not all of them are rich either. If your landlord is a rich scumbag, then maybe there's something you can and should do about it, but a broken boiler isn't sufficient evidence of this (and housing court is probably not the best solution.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:19 AM on February 27, 2013

Obscurereference, with all due respect, your answer is not helpful. I don't know why the landlord posted the signs. I don't pretend to know what happened or why what happened happened. I don't care. I care about the law. The law is that the landlord must provide heat this time of year. There is no possible reason this had to take ten days without having one of those portable boiler companies come and provide heat in the meantime. My management company also happens to be one of the worst-reviewed management companies in manhattan, so it's not one little sad old guy who is crying because I'm being mean to him. When you own a building, there are responsibilities you are undertaking, and if you renege on them, you deserve the consequences.
posted by millipede at 9:25 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have you talked to the management company since that initial call? Did you tell them you were planning to withhold rent because the apartment isn't habitable? That seems like it would be a good first step. Also contact 311 etc.

I agree that you should be compensated for your trouble, regardless of why it's happening (you shouldn't have to pay for something you don't actually receive, i.e. a habitable apartment), but going straight to housing court is not a good plan.
posted by mskyle at 9:56 AM on February 27, 2013

Did you tell them you were planning to withhold rent because the apartment isn't habitable? That seems like it would be a good first step.

Whoa. Bad, bad, bad, bad idea. The way rent abatement works is that the court declares the landlord owes you $X amount of rent for not fulfilling their duties for Y amount of time, and future rent is abated based on the judgement. Withholding rent can be done, but it's a really complicated procedure involving formal notice (not just saying/writing "I ain't payin' you") and can land you in deep shit, doubly so if your landlord sucks. Do not withhold rent or threaten to withhold rent without consulting an attorney first.
posted by griphus at 10:02 AM on February 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

If you'd like to speak to an attorney, I have a name for you. MeMail me.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:27 AM on February 27, 2013

Going to NYC housing court was, without a doubt, the worst experience of my life. Avoid it if at all possible. I would pay double the amount of rent we eventually recovered to have never gone through the ordeal at all.
posted by aparrish at 10:59 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a legal services attorney who reps poor tenants. I'm not going to give you advice. I am gonna urge you to be cautious about going to housing court, and I can memail you a list of private tenant attorneys if you'd like.
posted by Mavri at 6:06 PM on February 27, 2013

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