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In an unexpected victory for tenants, a panel of Appellate Term judges recently found part of the 1997 Rent Deposit law to be unconstitutional. Even more unexpected: The case that led to this decision was argued not by a high-priced white shoe lawyer or a tireless Legal Aid attorney, but by an unrepresented Brooklyn tenant.

For tenants facing eviction in Housing Court, the controversial rent deposit law has been a frightening prospect. By its provisions, once a court judgement is more than five days past due, a landlord can ask that a tenant put the entire amount of contested rent into a special court-monitored account. If the tenant doesn’t have the cash, he can get evicted–even if there’s evidence that the original judgment against him was wrong. The judge’s hands are tied.

Now, the court decision reverses that part of the law for Housing Courts in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, giving judges the power to postpone evictions even if the tenant can’t come up with the deposit money.

“It’s a great decision,” said Jodi Horowitz of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, which provides advice to lawyerless tenants. “It can make Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island Housing Court a little more palatable.”

Court records show that out of roughly 300,000 Housing Court cases between June of 1999 and 2000, deposits were made in only 17. But tenant lawyers say that hundreds more tenants have been evicted because of the law, when tenants were asked to make deposits they could not afford.

And advocates believe the threat of eviction under these laws has intimidated many tenants into signing unfair agreements with their landlords.

“You can look at court records and say: How many rent deposit orders were there? Not a lot,” explains Horowitz. “But how many people settled for really crappy [settlements] because of that? That’s another ball game.”

Lawyers from the Legal Aid Society have challenged the law before, with limited success. But two weeks ago, tenant Doris Allen succeeded where Legal Aid had not: The panel affirmed the Housing Court judge’s right to give Allen a stay of eviction without her first making a rent deposit.

Because of the way the court jurisdictions are divided, this decision only covers three of the city’s five boroughs.

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