FAST-TRACK EVICTIONS DERAILED?

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Landlords love the new Housing Court law that curtails some tenants’ appeals, but at least one Staten Island judge has ordered its eviction from his courtroom.

On November 10, Judge Philip Straniere ruled the law’s attempt to fast track evictions was unconstitutional. The decision has no legal authority beyond Staten Island, but the ruling could give judges precedent to avoid enforcing a provision that limits tenant appeals to eviction orders.

Judge Straniere took issue with a controversial provision requiring judges to order the eviction of tenants after five days if they fail to deposit rent in a court-monitored escrow account. Landlord lobbying groups pushed hard for the adoption of both the five-day and rent-deposit provisions. Tenant lawyers estimate a huge increase in evictions in 1998–as many as 25,000 more than last year–if the law is strictly enforced.

“[T]he tenant is entitled to the stay of eviction…. Not to do so would violate the due process clause,” Straniere argued in his decision to grant a stay in the eviction of a woman who owed $388.30 to her landlord. “The new statute,” he added, “is not enforceable.”

It is unlikely the landlord’s lawyers will appeal the decision because the woman paid her overdue amount shortly after Straniere’s decision, Legal Aid lawyers told City Limits.

“The fact that this comes from the most Republican-dominated and conservative court is very good,” says Scott Sommer, a tenant lawyer who has briefed judges on the implications of the new law. “I don’t think the landlords would be expecting this decision…. I’m hoping it’s going to inspire other judges to do the same.”

At press time, Legal Aid lawyers and tenant groups were drafting a constitutional challenge to the law, which was part of the June compromise that saved rent regulations in Albany. Ironically, the lawsuit was held up because no judge had yet issued an order for a rent deposit as of late November.

Calls to landlord groups were not returned.