In early October, Monique made her bed and packed a small bag to visit her elderly mother for the weekend. “I’ll be back on Sunday,” she said to her housemate on her way out the door. Monique returned but never got back into her home. Her landlord locked her out. She was “discharged”—a deceptive euphemism for “evicted” in the underground world of so-called three-quarter houses. One day to the next, without notice or a court order, Monique was homeless.
Monique’s past flashed before her eyes. Grounded by faith and unflappable perseverance, Monique defied all odds to overcome a history of substance use, incarceration and homelessness. Without any other housing options available, she found a three-quarter house—unlicensed, unregulated housing of last resort that is often all that shields poor and low-wealth single adults, like Monique, from homelessness. She moved in. She paid rent every month. She recaptured safety and stability in her life.
Now, after nearly a year in that new home, she was back on the streets. An ardent tenant activist, Monique knew her rights. She knew that the landlord had to get a court order before she could be evicted. She went to housing court. Monique was right about the law. It should have been an easy case. There was no dispute that the landlord took the law into his own hand to make Monique homeless. There was no dispute that Monique had already paid rent for the whole month of October.
But the court was unmoved. It said she had no right to get back into her home because she was a “licensee,” not a “tenant.” It didn’t matter that she already paid rent. It didn’t matter that she had nowhere to go. According to the court, people like Monique don’t have a right to notice or court process before eviction.
A little history may help explain why, as a lawyer, I was so shocked by the court’s decision.
City and state laws have long prohibited landlords from taking the law into their own hands to evict without first obtaining a court order. Historically, however, the laws that protect residential occupants from illegal eviction made a distinction between occupants who are “tenants” and those who are merely “licensees”—i.e., people who reside somewhere with permission of the landlord but who have not necessarily established a formal landlord-tenant relationship. If you were ever someone’s roommate but not on the lease, you were a licensee.
I have represented people who live in three-quarter houses for nearly a decade, I saw the devastating effect that the distinction between “licensee” and “tenant” could have for certainresidential occupants. The law stripped from licensees any right to due process before eviction. If you were a licensee, the law permitted your landlord to plunge you into the streets for any reason—or no reason—without notice or a court order.
The experience of people who live in three-quarter houses offered a compelling rationale for why the law needed to change. Preying on those desperate for housing, three-quarter house landlords notoriously lured potential residents from jails, prisons, detox centers, hospitals, shelters, and the streets. With no legal authority, house operators imposed “house rules” such as curfews, limitations on visitors, forced medical and substance use treatment, or other tactics to micromanage residents’ everyday lives. Dangerous overcrowding, bedbugs, and other housing code violations were the hallmark of three-quarter housing. And the business model for many three-quarter houses was to use a constant threat of extrajudicial eviction to coerce residents into submission.
But tenants fought back. Unwavering campaigns for justice shed light on infamous Medicaid fraud schemes and systematic illegal evictions within the three-quarter house industry. Years of grassroots organizing, troves of press coverage, criminal prosecution of landlords, and action by local government agencies all culminated in a legislative amendment intended to protect people who live in three-quarter houses.
In June 2019, the legislature fixed a loophole that permitted landlords to use “self-help” to evict with impunity. With a stated purpose to “extend tenant protections statewide,” New York State adopted a package of historic legislative reforms in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. One change, nestled on page 47 of the Act, expanded the right to court process for “tenants” to also include to any “lawful occupant.” It recognized that broad swaths of New Yorkers rely on an assortment of non-traditional housing arrangements to stave off homelessness. By amending the law, the legislature set out a clear intent to protect all residential occupants from self-help evictions. To conclude that the amendment to the law did nothing to protect the vast cohort of non-traditional residential occupants—who are the most housing insecure—is altogether at odds with the central purpose for which the law was changed.
Nonetheless, by dismissing Monique’s case, that is precisely what the court concluded.
The court’s rebuff of Monique’s claim was just the latest in a storied history of a systemic disregard for the dignity and humanity of people who live in three-quarter houses. Monique’s landlord threw her out of her home because she complained about hazardous conditions in the building. She stood up to demand safe, dignified housing. For that, the landlord put her out. And the court did nothing. Monique’s case demonstrates that the elites charged to interpret the law still regard people who live in three-quarter houses as less than.
For what other class of residential occupant would this type of eviction without court process be condoned? Would the court sanction the ouster of a non-tenant family member by the tenant whose name appears on the lease? If I kicked out my white, hipster roommate after he just paid rent for the month, would the court dismiss his case?
We live in a time of rampant housing insecurity in New York. Enforcing laws designed to prevent homelessness should be unassailable. Courts are charged to give full effect to the intent of the Legislature. The Legislature’s intent here was to end self-help evictions. In Monique’s case, the court had the opportunity to showcase the law’s unequivocal prohibition of illegal evictions in New York. It failed to do so.
Over the years, I have seen destructive consequences of illegal eviction but because of my privilege I have never had to survive them myself. The same is not true for people who rely on three-quarter houses. Relapse. Overdose. Incarceration. Homelessness.
Monique is a fighter. She is a survivor. And she will again persevere.
But the court’s resounding message is clear: people who live in three-quarter houses still don’t matter.
Main (@matthewpmain on Twitter) is a three-quarter house tenant
advocate and law instructor at CUNY School of Law.