Courting Calamity

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The tenant assistance table at Queens Housing Court is a flimsy fold-up job that droops in the middle from bearing too many pounds of paperwork heaped on it by too many evictable poor people.

Considering what hit that table last month, it’s a wonder the legs haven’t buckled.

Beginning October 20th, the court became more hospitable to landlords, thanks, ironically, to the supposedly tenant-friendly rent deal struck in Albany during the summer. While the compromise saved most protections for middle-income tenants, the real price of the deal is about to be paid by poor tenants dragged into court by their landlords for nonpayment of rent–the overwhelming majority of the more than 300,000 cases heard by Housing Court each year.

It will take a few months for the full effects of the new law to be felt, but it changes the fundamental balance of power between landlords and tenants by requiring tenants to deposit monthly rent payments with the court in order to argue their cases before a judge. In the past, Housing Court has been a place where tenants could set up a payment plan or buy time to find emergency help. The new law leaves many who have lost a job, are facing a medical crisis or are otherwise behind on their rent exposed to immediate eviction. Legal Services for New York estimates the number of evictions could more than double, rising from 24,000 last year to more than 55,000 in 1998.

“Most tenants in Housing Court aren’t there because they’ve decided to withhold their rent,” says Angelita Anderson, the executive director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, the nonprofit which runs the tenant advice tables. “The primary reason we have nonpayment cases is because people can’t afford their rents. Those are the people that are going to be evicted under this law.”

Naturally, landlords contend it’s only fair that tenants pay their rent on time, and that the law protects their property rights. But however legitimate their claims, Census Bureau statistics show that half of all renters in New York City spend a third or more of their household income on rent alone–and 628,000 households have incomes below the federal poverty line. With a speedier eviction process, a new tide of homelessness and overcrowding may be just around the corner.

Anderson and other advocates say the rent deposit rules will hurt all tenants, but they believe the hardest hit will be the working people in outerborough neighborhoods who are too poor to afford their rents–but have incomes high enough to make them ineligible for welfare.

“Queens will be the worst,” says Carl Peterson, who runs that borough’s table for the task force. “Poor people throughout the borough routinely pay $800, $900 in rent. I can’t envision anything happening other than a whole lot of new evictions.”

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The week before the new law took effect, Toshie, a 25-year-old home health care worker who lives in Flushing, walked up to the Queens table and asked for help. Like 90 percent of the tenants who appear before the court, she had no lawyer and not much idea of how to pay off the $2,527.40 she owed. The tale she recounted to a City-Wide Task Force volunteer echoed many others at Queens Housing Court.

Toshie is a single, working mother with an asthmatic son who pays more in rent than she takes home in pay–her salary is $532 a month; her rent comes to $671. She wasn’t always living so close to the bone. Last year, she was working full time and even made enough to send her son to private day care. Then her father died, saddling her with a $5,000 funeral bill. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to take a long leave of absence from work. While the operation was a success, it left her with a host of medical bills. And she can now work only part time, because her job requires hard physical labor.

Still, she clings desperately to her safe, clean apartment where she has lived for five years. “I went to welfare,” she says, plopping her pile of papers on the table, “and they told me I was making too much [to be eligible for benefits]. I’m looking for a better job, taking a computer class, doing anything that will help me make better money soon. It’s an impossible situation. I’m trying to pay October and it’s November already. Once you get behind, it’s real hard to play catch-up.” To avoid eviction, she plans to borrow cash from her mother while working out a payment plan with her landlord.

But whatever her travails, Toshie is lucky her case reached the court before the new law took effect. If her landlord had brought his case after October 20, Toshie wouldn’t have much leverage to negotiate and almost certainly would have been evicted before the end of the year.

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Under the new system, after a tenant in Toshie’s straits requests two adjourn-ments or within 30 days of the case being brought, whichever comes first, the judge must order her to start paying current rent into an escrow account. If she cannot pay, her landlord can legally press for an immediate eviction. The judge would have no choice but to grant it.

Working people facing judgments for nonpayment can usually apply for an Emergency Assistance to Families grant from the city Human Resources Administration (HRA), a so-called “one shot.” For those on public assistance, the best option is a court-ordered “Jiggetts rent supplement,” which provides a large lump sum for back rent payments along with ongoing rent supplements. But even these benefits may not be enough to prevent eviction under the new system.

That’s because one shots typically take 45 days to process, and a Jiggetts supplement often leaves tenants and landlords cooling their heels for three months before either of them sees a penny. Yet the new law requires a tenant pay back rent or vacate the apartment five days after a judge’s order to deposit rent. In the past, a judge who knew government pay-outs were forthcoming would typically give a tenant a stay in their evictions. Those days are now officially over.

“When I read the rent deposit stuff I was disturbed, but when I read the five-day provision I got really pissed off,” says Scott Sommer of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “This is the real grand slam for landlords.” Sommer, who has conducted information seminars on the new tenant law for supervising judges in each borough, urges jurists to delay final judgments until tenants receive their checks to ensure the five-day rule is never allowed to kick in.

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But to Sommer the only way to really fix the law is to have it declared unconstitutional. At press time, the tenant coalition was shopping for suitable tenants to file a class-action suit. This summer, though, Legal Aid and Legal Services lawyers unearthed a gem, a little-known 35-year-old state statute–the so-called “Spiegel Law”–which legitimizes welfare recipients’ rent strikes against “slumlords” by requiring property owners to clear up all “dangerous or hazardous conditions” before receiving welfare rent payments. For many of the 30 percent of Housing Court litigants receiving public assistance, it means they may not have to pay rent deposits immediately, giving them more time to raise money or find counsel.

“In all my years doing this, I have never had a single Housing Court client whose apartment has not had a violation,” says Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid attorney who helped develop the Spiegel strategy. “This is a major tool to help poor tenants because there is a direct correlation between the poverty of the tenants and the physical deterioration of their building.”

Goldiner says the law–named for its original sponsor, Manhattan state Assemblyman Samuel Spiegel–has already been upheld by the state Supreme Court. It languished because of a unique “trigger”: In order for the law to take effect, the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) must provide the city Human Resources Administration with the pass-word to its in-house violations computer–something the agency had never done. Last month, under threat of lawsuits, HPD commissioner Richard Roberts told Legal Services he had turned the password over to HRA.

“It’s not going to save all the tenants,” Sommer says, “but we need all the help we can get.”