In all ways but one, it’s a typical Housing Court story: a poor tenant who hasn’t paid rent gets evicted by a powerful landlord armed with a smart and aggressive attorney. In this case, the tenant had big problems in his apartment: peeling lead paint that had poisoned his kid, collapsing ceilings, no heat-conditions that could have entitled him to a substantial rent abatement. Instead, the confused tenant signed an agreement where he promised to pay all of his back rent, and give up his legal tenancy rights to boot.
Typical slumlord tactics, a housing advocate might say. Except in this case, the landlord is the New York City Housing Partnership, a nonprofit group contracted by the city to manage the rehabbing of low-income housing.
The tenant, whose name lawyers requested not be used, quit paying rent in August 1999, saying the apartment was nearly uninhabitable. (In court, terrible housing conditions can be used as a justification for not paying rent.)
He was promptly hauled into court for nonpayment, where he signed an agreement that would temporarily relocate him while his apartment was fixed up–on the condition that he give away his rights and every penny of the back rent he owed on the old, collapsing apartment.
It’s legal, but it’s playing hardball, say the Legal Services lawyers who are now representing him. “It was a very slick kind of maneuver,” said attorney Susan Sokol. She said her client, desperate to move out, had no idea he was signing away his rights.
“The whole egregious part of this is that he’s expected to pay the full amount for an apartment that was literally falling on him,” agreed Will Muniz, a Legal Services lawyer who is now trying to get the initial agreement declared invalid. “The previous apartment was the worst I’ve seen. Usually when I include a list of conditions [in court documents], I label them A,B, C, D. In this case, I stopped at Y.”
The Partnership said that this eviction is not their responsibility–they pointed instead to the company managing his building. But the attorneys pointed out that only the Partnership’s name appears on court documents.
“We have no desire to evict this tenant,” said the Partnership’s George Armstrong, who supervises the project. “That’s not the way we approach things–and by the mere fact that this person has not been kicked out and has not paid rent since August of 1999 shows that we’re willing to work things out.” Armstrong also said the tenant did not allow the manager in to make repairs.
But according to Alison Cordero, a housing expert at the non-profit housing group St. Nicholas, most nonprofits shy away from aggressively evicting tenants–even those with substantial rent arrears. “Most nonprofits bend over backwards to keep tenants in their apartments,”she said. “We try to get tenants in here before they go to court and let them know what their rights are.”
The tenant is now back in court, for failing to pay rent on both his new apartment and his old one–even though his doctor has informed him that his son has high blood lead. He told his lawyers that conditions in the new apartment are hardly better than those in the first, but since the agreement he signed essentially makes him a legal squatter, he may have little recourse in court.