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Tenant lawyers may have found a “secret weapon” that will help tenants on public assistance combat a new landlord-friendly Housing Court law that takes effect today. The new law forces many tenants to deposit rent payments in court-managed escrow accounts in order to have their cases heard and restricts their right of appeal.

Legal Aid and Legal Services lawyers have unearthed a little-known 35-year-old state statute–the so-called “Spiegel Law”–that sanctions welfare recipients' rent strikes against “slumlords” by requiring them to clear up all “dangerous or hazardous conditions” before receiving welfare rent payments. Therefore, the attorneys argue, the 30 percent of Housing Court litigants who receive public assistance should be able to avoid having to pay rent deposits immediately–while also forcing their landlords to undertake badly needed repairs.

In addition to improving living conditions, the violation-based defense will give tenants more time to raise money to pay back rent, to find counsel or to hunt for another apartment.

“In all my years doing this, I have never had a single housing court client whose apartment has not had a violation,” said 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. There are three million violations in the city.”

Goldiner says the law–named for Manhattan assemblyman Samuel Spiegel, its original sponsor–has already been upheld by the state Supreme Court. It has languished because of a unique “trigger” provision: In order for the law to take effect, the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development must provide the city Human Resources Administration with the password to its in-house violations computer–something the agency had never done.

Under pressure, HPD commissioner Richard Roberts told Legal Services he had turned the password over to HRA.

Still, tenant advocates said the rent deposit law could more than double the 24,000 tenant evictions that took place in the city last year. “Based on my calculations, I think we might see as many as 33,000 more evictions this year,” said tenant lawyer Scott Sommer of South Brooklyn Legal Services. He and his colleagues concede only a broad class-action lawsuit against the whole system will help non-welfare poor and working-class tenants. “We'll file it as soon as we find a plaintiff,” Sommer added. “It won't be too long after the law takes effect.”

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