By Shaun Abreu
New York Daily News
I have a client in West Harlem who is traumatized by rain. Every time the sky opens up, her toilet becomes a waterfall of filth that floods her apartment, streaks the floors and walls with mold, and makes her home uninhabitable.
The landlord refuses to fix the pipes even though the law is clear: Property owners must ensure that their apartments are fit for basic habitation. But if you can’t afford an attorney, the law, and violations and orders to make repairs from the city’s housing agency are toothless.
In time, frustrated tenants move out, charting the path for the landlord to deregulate another apartment from the state’s rent stabilization laws. We call this a constructive eviction.
For the first time, however, there is the potential to give new leverage to low-income tenants so they can get the basic repairs and essential services they need to make their homes healthy and habitable.New York should build on the success of the Right to Counsel Law, passed two years ago by the City Council, by expanding it to provide low-income clients with representation to sue their landlords in Housing Court to get legally required repairs.
The Right to Counsel law presently provides tenants with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line — and facing eviction.
In its first full year, approximately 84% of these families with eviction notices who got representation were able to stay in their homes, while 97% of NYCHA tenants were able to remain in theirs.
In an unintended but direct consequence, evictions declined five times faster in the zip codes where these 21,955 tenants, comprising 7,847 households, live, compared with other neighborhoods.
This year we’ve had a further decline in court-won evictions as a result of the new state tenant laws, but there are still no protections against landlords’ workaround: constructive evictions.
It is urgent that New York act now to expand the Right to Counsel law’s right of protection from eviction to include a proactive right to habitability for tenants.Property owners’ response to new state tenant protections regulating the major capital and individual apartment improvements, which landlords once manipulated to increase rents and deregulate apartments, has been to cut back on basic repairs.
Before the apartments of our most vulnerable residents deteriorate further, it is vital that we provide these tenants with attorneys to take their landlords to court to force them to make repairs and provide essential services, like heat and hot water, or, sometimes, just water.
These attorneys also should be allowed to represent entire buildings in order to bring Article 7A actions requesting the court appoint an administrator if a landlord fails to remedy violations within five days of an inspection by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development.
These Article 7A actions would provide landlords an incentive to make repairs before the city takes over their properties.
Expansion of the law also would incentivize HPD to hire more inspectors and conduct more inspections of hazardous conditions, because, ultimately, the city does not want to take over these buildings, so the agency will do all it can to ensure property owners comply with the law.
Let’s be clear: We’re not looking to fill Housing Court with frivolous actions. What we are seeking is to expand the law to bring action when HPD issues Class B and Class C violations — lack of heat or hot water and presence of lead paint — and where landlords fail to abate these uninhabitable and hazardous conditions after having had a reasonable opportunity to do so.
We also propose targeting this enhancement of the Right to Counsel law to those zip codes where HPD has identified the highest concentrations of such violations: the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
The City Council should be proud of what it achieved with the Right to Counsel Law. Now it’s time to make it even better and improve the quality of life of our most vulnerable residents, at minimal cost to taxpayers.
Abreu is an attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group.
Originally published in New York Daily News on December 3, 2019