NEW YORK—Judith Farrington has lived in her rent-controlled apartment off Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side for 51 years.
Problems with her landlord started almost immediately. From the start she battled harassment, pushed for renovations, and organized others in her building. She made sure tenants received receipts for their rent checks and knew how to check whether they were being overcharged.
Farrington’s original neighbors have now all passed away or moved out, and the building has long been converted into a co-op.
Now Farrington, 84, is exhausted, ill, and quickly losing hope.
About four years ago, she was sitting in her home when her ceiling collapsed on her, setting off a series of legal battles to make her apartment livable.
Four lawyers later, she has signed away her position as the primary resident of her apartment and cannot make sense of what went wrong.
“I am going to die in a few years anyway,” said Farrington. “Why can’t they just leave me in peace?”
The oft-cited statistic of 90 percent of landlords coming to housing court with representation while over 90 percent of tenants do not has certainly contributed to the high eviction rate and success of rent-deregulations in New York City.
There are legal intricacies that factor into every case, such as specific protections for rent-regulated tenants; they often require tenants to be aware of their rights.
In Farrington’s case, she and her second husband Willis Dash had started out as represented tenants, but lawyer’s fees soon racked up to nearly $15,000—including over $1,500 for photocopying—and she could no longer afford the private attorney.
They were then appointed an attorney by the court, but he quickly removed himself from the case. The attorney after that came from the nonprofit Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. (NMIC), which exclusively represents tenants, and that attorney eventually also withdrew from the case. The fourth attorney was also from a nonprofit, MFY Legal Services, but withdrew on the grounds that Farrington and Dash were noncompliant and unreachable, according to records.
Eventually Farrington and Dash were each appointed a guardian ad litem, a representative who is not a lawyer but is authorized to act on the tenants’ behalf. The guardian ad litem advised them to sign a stipulation.
“We don’t understand what we signed,” Dash said. “The judge wouldn’t let me ask questions.”
They had signed an agreement that would allow the landlord to evict the tenants of the apartment if Dash is deceased or moves out, despite the fact that Farrington has been the primary resident for over 50 years.
The stipulation also states that the tenants are now holdover occupants “without any rights of rent-controlled tenants.” Tenants normally have the right to legal occupancy if a landlord accepts their rent, but holdover tenants do not, unless the landlord accepts payment after instituting a legal proceeding for eviction.
The guardian ad litem and landlord did not respond to a request for comment.
Eligibility and Limited Resources
According to city data, last year there were 30,000 evictions, two-thirds of which were evictees with incomes below $25,000 who could not afford representation.
There is now a growing nationwide movement to give tenants the right to representation and the right to recover their fees the way landlords can.
Lawyers advise tenants to seek legal advice or representation as soon as they think their living situation is in danger, even if a court proceeding has not begun.
According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, tenants facing eviction are typically eligible for free legal representation, but if the housing issue is not about eviction or a case has not started it can be difficult.
If tenants can afford a private lawyer, they are often advised to find a lawyer who specializes in New York City landlord–tenant law and only represents tenants, to avoid a possible conflict of interest.
The city has numerous nonprofits that work exclusively with tenants facing housing problems, but each sees a never-ending barrage of tenants on the verge of losing their homes.
“We see on average 50–75 people a week, and that’s just people who come into intake Monday and Thursday,” said Rodrigo Sanchez-Camus, supervising attorney for NMIC Legal Services. They also receive calls and emails every day. Washington Heights and Inwood in Northern Manhattan combined have the largest concentration of rent-stabilized units, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
Christopher Schwartz, supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services, said MFY tries to be as visible as possible so tenants know they can come to organizations like his for legal services. By nature, nonprofits like these aim to help as many tenants as possible and preserve affordable housing in the city.
But there is a capacity issue. Cases can be very difficult if there is little documentation to support the tenant. If lawyers do not think they can make a difference, they may not take the case.
“There are too many people who desire representation and not enough lawyers,” Schwartz said. He hopes that, like criminal court, legislative changes will allow tenants to be appointed attorneys when they cannot afford one.
Earlier this year, Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson introduced Bill 214, which would allow tenants facing eviction, ejectment, or foreclosure proceedings and making less than 125 percent of the federal poverty line, to access legal services.
Over 60 organizations have joined the Coalition for Justice in Housing Court in New York City, advocating for these rights.
“Hearing their call for action, the City Council made it a priority to fund anti-eviction legal services at an unprecedented level this year with ardent support from many of my colleagues,” Levine stated. “I’m hopeful this momentum will lead to Intro 214 being heard in committee this fall, and I will continue to push for its passage until this injustice is rectified.”
Nonprofit housing legal services typically aim to help tenants with any housing-related case, even if it is just administrative work in relation to city or state agencies and does not require representation in court.
However, in cases where tenants on fixed incomes can no longer afford their rent, lawyers cannot help.
“It’s one of our biggest frustrations,” Sanchez-Camus said. Tenants may come in looking for subsidies or affordable housing, but legal services cannot provide housing.
There are rent increase exemptions for seniors and disabled tenants, which could freeze their rent if they are living in a rent-regulated apartment. This requires the eligible tenant to designate the exemption before the rent has increased past what they can afford.
Lawyers may also choose to withdraw from a case for a variety of reasons: if a tenant lies about a situation or withholds information, is unreachable by the lawyer, or the lawyer and tenant cannot agree on how to proceed.
In the Details
As soon as the tenant feels their living situation is in danger, they should reach out for legal advice, Schwartz said.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Schwartz said. “Whenever you receive any documentation you don’t understand, call legal services.”
Earlier is better, but even if the situation is dire it may not be impossible to turn things around.
“Signing a stipulation is a very bad signpost; it means your case is very far along,” Schwartz said. “It’s a very dangerous situation … but it’s not impossible.” If the case is that the tenant signed away rights they didn’t know they had, it’s possible it could be remedied.
Schwartz also cautioned that tenants should not assume they are in the right just because they have stayed in their apartment for years and continued to pay rent.
“They could be in violation of their lease and facing eviction,” Schwartz said. Many tenants and seniors he has worked with believe they have the right to their apartment but have really violated their lease in small ways, and become unable to keep their apartments.
“It’s always best to at least get the information early on,” Schwartz said.
Get It in Writing
All too often, tenants believe a verbal agreement made with their landlord is binding, said Kamilla Sjodin, associate director of housing law at New York Legal Assistance Group.
A common scenario is that the landlord will offer a rent reduction with some condition, and down the road the landlord and tenant end up in housing court for nonpayment and the tenant cannot prove he or she was only paying what the parties had verbally agreed upon.
“It makes it very difficult to prove in court,” Sjodin said.
Nonpayment cases are very common, and a tenant can be taken to court for this even if the rent is a day late. In Manhattan the last few months, cases were opened for nonpayment of rent ranging from about $400 to as much as over $25,400.
Sjodin said tenants should also avoid paying in cash, so as to have proof the checks or money orders are being cashed and earmark them with the date as what the money is for, for example, “For August 2014 rent.”
Then, Sjodin said, the landlord cannot use the money toward other purposes like repairs and then say the tenant still owes money for rent in July.
Ultimately, the outcome will almost always depend on what is stated in the lease. There have been cases where a tenant was locked out of his apartment legally, and was still able to get the apartment back, Sjodin said, but also cases where tenants were relocated during renovations and unable to return because there is nothing in writing to support it.
Tenants are entitled to repairs and should call city agencies if they are not getting them, adds Sjodin, who previously served as counsel to the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings and drafted housing-related legislation.
The Department of Housing and Preservation deals with repairs while the Department of Buildings deals with construction, and the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal oversees rent control and rent stabilization. If a tenant isn’t sure which agency is responsible, they can always call 311.
But tenants of private apartments, versus rent-regulated apartments, do not have the right to renew their lease. In some cases they complain about building conditions and the landlord refuses to renew their leases, so the tenants are hesitant to report things.
A big issue Sanchez-Camus is seeing is tenants not understanding they have succession rights. Many of the residents of rent-regulated apartments are now seniors, and many affordable units tend to be lost when they pass away as the leaseholder. If they failed to exercise their succession rights, even if a family member had been living with the tenant for several years, they might be evicted, and the apartment could then be deregulated if extensive renovations are made.
“This is our biggest issue—they really need to enforce their legal right of succession,” Sanchez-Camus said.
Sometimes the would-be successors have lived with the tenant of record for several years and continue to pay rent under the tenant of record’s name without notifying anyone, and this is a mistake.
To gain succession of a rent regulated apartment, you need to have lived in the apartment for two years prior to the last tenant of record leaving, and the two years start when the landlord is aware. This is typically applicable only to immediate family members but “nontraditional family members” like distant relatives, guardians, partners, can also demonstrate a familial relationship that applies.
The tenants and landlord should also put it in writing and add the successor to the lease. Tenants have a legal right to this and should not be afraid they are rocking the boat by notifying the landlord, Sanchez-Camus said.
With New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments, it’s different. NYCHA needs to approve the successor and add him or her to the lease, and the successor needs to live with the primary tenant for a full year.
In one case, Sanchez-Camus said, a woman had her name added to her mother’s lease a month before she passed away, so she was unable to keep the apartment despite having lived there for four years in a row.
“Rules are rules,” Sanchez-Camus said.