Tenants and landlords don’t always see eye to eye. Disputes arise because one party isn’t living up to their agreement, and not everything can be solved with a phone call or cordial email. That’s where the Housing Part of the Civil Court of New York City comes into play.
Usually referred to as simply ‘Housing Court,’ it’s often the refuge of New York’s disgruntled and embittered apartment-dwellers and their landlords – but it’s not just about disputes in rental relationships. The Court is comprised of 50 judges presiding over more than 350,000 cases each year, a large percentage of which involve co-ops and condos.
History and Procedure
According to a spokesperson at the courts, the Housing Part of the Court was created to look at actions and proceedings involving the enforcement of state and local laws for the establishment and maintenance of housing standards. The Court has jurisdiction over summary proceedings, and in addition to judgments of possession, can award a judgment for rent in any amount. But just because a dispute involves housing, or apartments, doesn’t mean that it can be adjudicated in Housing Court.
Attorney William Aronin, a partner with Perry & Aronin in Manhattan, has been involved with cases in the Housing Court for a few years. “Condos really don’t belong in Housing Court, as they’re not based on a landlord/tenant relationship,” he says. “Co-ops do, because of that proprietary lease – so it’s technically a landlord/tenant arrangement. So where that tends to come up the most for co-ops is when tenants don’t pay their common charges and the board tries to do an eviction. That technically goes through Housing Court, so then they can try the summary proceeding through there.”
Richard Klein, a partner with Romer Debbas LLP, a New York City-based boutique law firm specializing in commercial and residential real estate transactions, has been trying cases in the Housing Court since its earliest days, almost 30 years ago.
“[The court] has the same authority it always has, but it’s changed in the sense that for many years, a lot of judges were not necessarily familiar with co-ops and condos and how to proceed,” he says. “Now they have a special part primarily for co-ops, so that if you’re bringing in nonpayment or something else pertaining to a co-op, it goes to a designated part so that the judge hopefully is more familiar with what’s going on in the co-op and the landlord/tenant relationship in the co-op, which is different from a rental building.”
There are two common types of cases a landlord can bring against a tenant: Nonpayment cases, where the landlord claims you owe rent and is suing to collect the money and evict you if you do not or cannot pay it; and holdover cases, where the landlord is looking to evict his or her tenant for reasons other than nonpayment.
“The most common types of proceedings brought before the Housing Court are summary nonpayment proceedings and summary holdover proceedings,” says Jeremy Honig, an attorney and partner with Rivkin Radler, which has offices in New York and New Jersey. “In these proceedings, the landlord is known as the petitioner and the tenant is known as the respondent.”
In order to commence a non-payment proceeding, a landlord – or a board, in the case of nonpayment of co-op maintenance by a shareholder – must first serve a rent demand upon the tenant (or shareholder). By statute, the landlord/board must provide the tenant/shareholder with at least three days after the service of the rent demand to pay the rent before it may commence legal action. The lease may provide the tenant with more than three days to pay the rent following the service of the rent demand, but may not provide the tenant with any less than three days.
“With respect to a holdover proceeding, there may or may not be a predicate notice that must be served before a landlord may commence a proceeding, depending upon the basis for such proceeding,” Honig says. “For example, if a tenant fails to vacate possession after the lease expires by its terms, a landlord is not required to serve a predicate notice before commencing a holdover proceeding. However, depending upon the terms of the lease between the parties, a landlord will likely be required to serve a predicate notice if the holdover proceeding is based upon the landlord’s termination of the lease following an alleged default.”
Klein notes that if he’s doing a board/shareholder case for nonpayment, the first thing he does is something known as a rent demand on the shareholder in arrears.
“You’re in default. You haven’t paid X dollars over a period of two months, or three months, whatever it’s been, and you have X days to pay. I have that letter served by a process server upon the shareholder,” he says. “If they don’t respond and don’t make the payment, then you serve what’s called a notice of petition. That’s a petition saying that the shareholder is in default, and now we’re proceeding in court.”
Going After Landlords
While the bulk of cases in Housing Court involve residents not paying rent or common charges, the court also hears the cases brought by tenants against their landlords. These involve illegal eviction proceedings; HP proceedings, where a tenant asks the court to order the landlord to make repairs; and 7A proceedings, where 33 percent or more of the tenants in a building ask the court to take control of the building away from the landlord and give it to a court-supervised administrator.
“On the other side of the equation, let’s say you have a tenant who is paying their rent or the common charges and they’re having a lot of problems,” Aronin says.
“Let’s say conditions keep getting worse—whether it’s pipes that could potentially be between apartments or in common areas where you have elevators that aren’t working, or you have leaking roofs. Then residents can file Warranty of Habitability violations and say that the board has an obligation to keep the apartment in appropriate condition. The [tenant/shareholder plaintiff or petitioner] can either get an abatement, get a reduction in their common charges, be given fines, etc. So both sides can bring cases against each other.”
Bringing a case to Housing Court is pretty easy, and outside of the lawyer fees themselves, the costs are not very high.
“I think it’s $45 to file and actually have the court. That’s pretty much it,” Aronin says. “The way you file is there are notice requirements, especially on the board side. The board has to send formal notices depending on what the violations are. A three-day notice, a five-day notice, basically just formal demands spelled out in documents that basically say ‘Correct this problem, otherwise we’re going to sue you.’ Once that’s done, they just file what’s called a petition, which is basically the same thing as a summons and a complaint in Supreme Court.”
The other side then has to file an answer within X number of days. Once the answer is filed, it goes before a court and then the process starts.
“They’re theoretically supposed to go really fast,” says Aronin of the process by which cases make their way through the court. “The problem is, there could be motions, people asking for relief, there could be discovery, people trying to get documents. Tenants or co-op members have the right to at least get a chance to get an attorney, so they may go into court and say ‘I haven’t had a chance to get an attorney’ and the judge is going to adjourn. Then you’re going to get on for documents to be exchanged, to file motions. It’s just going to be basically once every month until this is resolved, you’re going to keep coming back to court. Then it becomes a waiting game until the court has available or judges available to actually try the case.”
Litigation is filled with uncertainty and, thus, every proceeding is different in terms of how long it takes for a proceeding to be resolved. As with other litigation, the vast majority of proceedings are resolved via settlement. While a corporate entity tenant is required to retain counsel to represent it in a summary proceeding, a residential tenant is permitted to proceed pro se.
Klein says that when he represents rental buildings, the tenant almost never has an attorney. “In the co-op part, because of the nature of the relationship, even though the shareholder is a tenant, they do own the stock that’s allocated to the apartment, so it’s a little different situation,” he says. “Sometimes they have the means to get an attorney. I wouldn’t say it’s all the time, but depending on what’s at stake, a shareholder tenant will have an attorney more often than in a rental situation. If it’s just a couple of months, they’ll come in on their own and we’ll work it out and make a payment plan. But if there’s a substantial reason they’re not paying, they might hire an attorney.”
Appealing – and Options Other Than Court
Once a case is resolved – either with a stipulation, which is an agreement between the parties, or an order from the judge after a trial – either side can go to the Appellate Division.
“It’s an appellate series of judges within the Supreme Court, so it’s still within the first level of courts that can stay the ruling and ask for more information,” Aronin says. “You can then actually appeal it to the Appellate Department, which is a higher court. You theoretically can take it to the Court of Appeals, but that’s pushing it. It’s hard to do.”
In his view, Aronin says that people want more or less the same things; landlords or boards want to be paid their rent or their maintenance. Tenants want apartments that are in good condition, with safety, security and heat. Usually, you can work these things out including just going and sitting down with an attorney, who can mediate between parties, rather than litigating.
“A lot of the biggest problems I’ve seen are little things that could have been solved really quickly, but weren’t – until the other side simply just hates each other so much that they’re making each others’ lives miserable,” Aronin says. “It’s amazing how much of what I see in housing court is just that.”
Proceedings rarely go quickly, and sometimes the process becomes more adversarial than it needs to be, so most lawyers recommend the parties trying to work something out before running to the courts. Honig says that for parties that do not wish to litigate, the best option is to discuss settlement before a proceeding is commenced. “For a tenant, that means that notices from the landlord alleging a default under the lease, or the failure to pay rent, should not be ignored,” he says.
Klein notes there are numerous reasons why a tenant or shareholder might be a few weeks late in paying; they could be sick, going through a divorce, or facing some kind of crisis at work, just to name a few. In these cases, Klein says that residents shouldn’t hide the fact they’re struggling, but rather just go to the board, tell them they’re having a hard time, and try to come up with a payment plan.
“Sometimes you might say, ‘Let’s try to resolve it through mediation or arbitration.’ More like dispute resolution,” he says. “Once you get to court, the court fees run up pretty quickly and it becomes a little more adversarial. I try to counsel my buildings to reach out and see if we can work something out through dispute resolution or mediation and avoid having to go to court.”
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.