New York City has a strong tenant anti-harassment law on the books. Your rights as a tenant are enumerated in the Tenants’ Rights Guide bylined by NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman available here:
There are several ways to start an action against an abusive landlord. One way is to make a complaint directly to the DHCR (Division of Housing and Community Renewal) using Form RA-60H.
2. What will happen then?
Filing form RA-60H via mail will cause a docket number to be opened for your case, and you will be “in the system.” You — and your landlord (and/or his representatives) — may now be summoned to testify under oath in court. By the time you receive your court date (via mail), you’ll need to be ready for battle.
3. What do I have to prove?
Sometimes harassment is documentable because it often comes in the form of the removal or reduction in services, including security, heat, hot water, cold water, electricity, concierge or superintendent services, garbage removal, or elevator services. You don’t need to prove that these reductions were “willful” as long as you can establish that they were “continuing” and not merely “episodic.” Sometimes it’s a lot harder to prove. Tenants are often verbally harassed in the form of a threat, for example, for example, being threatened with eviction if one refuses to vacate an apartment or move to a new one. “Persistent physical or psychological intimidation” is forbidden by law, but you must prove that this happened. Doing so may require testimony from witnesses who may be reluctant to appear with you because they fear retaliation.
4. Don’t I have the right to a lawyer?
In criminal court, you do, but not in Housing Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that only when risked by “loss of life and liberty” are you automatically entitled to legal representation. This means that even if you’re poor, you’ll have to represent yourself or hire a lawyer to defend you.
5. Can’t I just represent myself in court?
You can, but it’s very risky. Why? Because landlords hire “shark” attorneys to represent them. They often have many years of experience and sometimes PhDs in Law. Unless you’re familiar with the minutia of NY housing law and the mechanics of New York’s Housing Court system, you could lose your case on a technicality. Proving “willfulness” on anyone’s part is always difficult, and establishing a “continuing course of conduct” may require discovery and production of hundreds or thousands of documents. Your witnesses may have their testimony stricken if you fail to abide by an obscure technical rule. The odds of you failing — either by being tripped up by a legal technicality or being outmaneuvered by a skillful attorney on the landlord’s side rise with self-representation. Only in rare cases should a tenant seeking to pursue an anti-harassment against a landlord not be represented by a competent attorney.
6. Won’t Legal Aid represent me?
Legal Aid lawyers can be helpful with non-payment cases, holdover cases, HP actions (repairs), ejection actions, Section 8 issues, and other matters, but don’t ordinarily handle anti-harassment actions. The non-profit Metropolitan Council on Housing has a long history of tenant advocacy in New York City. It advises that you will probably not be able to get free legal representation “if your housing issue is not about an eviction” or “if your landlord has not started an eviction case against you.” This observation is consistent with my own experience in housing court. Legal Aid attorneys do great work but anti-harassment actions are out of their scope. This means that you must find a private attorney — and a way to pay him — to keep your anti-harassment action alive.
7. How much will a court case cost?
You might need to spend between $10,000 and $50,000 moving your case through the system. Your landlord might have to spend even more if his attorneys bill at high rates (which they typically do). If you lose your case in Housing Court, you might wind up having to foot your opponent’s legal costs. That’s yet another reason not to fight this battle without a legal eagle at your side.
8. Could my landlord retaliate against me in court?
They’re not supposed to. New York State’s tenant anti-harassment law specifically prohibits “unwarranted or baseless court proceeding,” but you should still prepare for a legal pushback. Abusive landlords have been known to flout the prohibition against “unwarranted or baseless court proceedings.” In one recent instance, the New York State TPU determined that an abusive landlord in Chinatown “summoned a family to housing court to claim that the family’s primary residency was elsewhere, despite the fact that the family has lived in the apartment for decades, has young children attending a neighborhood school, and has no links to another address.” If you’ve violated even one tiny section of your lease, you’re vulnerable to attack, and now you’ve made yourself a target.
9. Should I form a tenant’s committee?
Forming or being part of a tenant’s committee will give the enforcement authorities an additional point of contact to discuss information related to your case. Even if you’re only a “committee of one” it’s good to think about forming a committee, because your plight is likely shared by others with similar grievances. Even a small group of people is sufficient evidence that the grievances against the landlord aren’t simply “sour grapes” on the part of one tenant.
10. What special issues do I need to worry about if I am a low-income tenant in an SRO building?
In New York, low-income tenants in SRO “single room occupancy” dwellings face difficult issues. They are protected by rent stabilization laws as permanent tenants. This makes them vulnerable to landlords who want to take over low-income, rent-stabilized apartments. Evictions for low-income SRO tenants often spell disaster. Statistics reveal many end up homeless.
In many SRO buildings, it is typical for the USPS (United States Postal Service) to drop off sacks of mail at a central desk. This desk is controlled by the landlord or his agents. Once the USPS drops the mail sacks, it is no longer responsible for delivery of the mail; the landlord is.
This means that the landlord controls when and if a tenant receives his or her mail.
Proving that a given piece of mail was withheld, delayed, returned to sender or tampered with, is difficult. There is no paper trail beyond the USPS “drop off” point.
11. Why is finding a good lawyer so difficult?
Anti-harassment actions aren’t profitable for many attorneys to pursue. They don’t come with big payouts (if successful, they only exact a civil penalty from the landlord of a few thousand dollars), but can be as grueling to fight as a personal injury or matrimonial case.
You can try to find a “good guy/gal”-style lawyer doing “pro bono” work who feels strongly enough about tenant abuse to take your case, but these people are rarer than exotic parrots. Sometimes a local law school can help out. For example, Brooklyn Law School hosts the South Brooklyn Legal Services providing advice for low-income tenants. Other New York-based law schools, including Columbia, Fordham, Columbia, and New York Law, may provide valuable free guidance, even if they cannot provide representation. I relied on “pro se” lawyers in housing court to advise my case. The Housing Court Answers free hotline is also very helpful: 212-962-4795.
Also, the New York Bar Association hosts a free consultative line for low-income NY residents where landlord-tenant issues can be discussed free of charge: http://www.nycbar.org/get-legal-help/legal-hotline. There is a new movement to help provide low-income people with much greater access to good lawyers and I’m 100 percent behind it.