Housing Court 15: “Rent Was Paid, So Why the Eviction Notice?”

This piece, “Down the Rabbit Hole in a Rental War,” appeared in the Metropolitan Section of the Sunday March 10, 2013 New York Times. It was written, and experienced, by Charanna Alexander, a news assistant at the NYT.

I found the piece bothersome for a whole number of reasons.

Charanna Alexander and a roommate rented an apartment in Harlem, an apartment she calls her “dream.” A few months ago, she and her neighbors saw a notice from the city marshal reading, “You may be evicted without further notice, on the sixth business day after the date of this notice.”

They had all been paying rent regularly, as she reports but, “Unwittingly, we had landed in the middle of a New York real estate drama, Kafka-esque in nature…”

Her supposed landlord, to whom they had been paying their rent, hadn’t been making his own rent payments to his landlord, the person or company who actually owned the building. Indeed, their “landlord’s” lease had been terminated a full year before the tenants received that potential eviction notice.

Here’s what I’m finding bothersome about Ms. Alexander’s experience. Although she evidently researched the situation for her piece, she herself and her fellow tenants did not immediately go to Housing Court upon reading that marshal’s notice.

Why not? Clearly, she didn’t know about Housing Court. And why would she? Most of us middle class city residents don’t know about Housing Court. I learned about it only because I have a real estate lawyer whose practice often takes her into Housing Court.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Shouldn’t there be a better informational route to all of us about not only Housing Court but the other City court resources?

Yes, there are good New York State and City court web sites (under Sites of Interest on my own home page, there are links to the NYS Unified Court System and the Housing Maintenance Code, which offers a link to Housing Court), but how would a tenant in Ms. Alexander’s scary position know to get into them?

Which is one reason I hope my series on Housing Court has helped.

I’m also troubled by Ms. Alexander’s narrative about her experience once she did get to Housing Court. First, she says “we got nowhere.” She says that a clerk on the first floor sent her to the third floor and then she was sent back to the first floor, to the legal aid bureau where she was given what to me sounds like bad advice.

But because I’ve spent a lot of time down there, I know that the Housing Court clerk’s office is on the second, not the third floor. And there are free advisers at a table who, it’s my observation, spend a great deal of time with each person who asks for advice. I can’t imagine one of them telling anyone to “Like I told the lady that was here before you, I suggest you collect all of your valuable items, especially your important documents, and move them to a storage unit.” Or that they would probably be evicted on Thursday and might never see their belongings again if the landlord hadn’t paid his debt.

Because, in Housing Court, as in most other courts, disastrous things like that just don’t happen that fast, and without hearing from the affected tenants. Providing, of course, that the affected tenants know to go to Housing Court. Which is not as confusing as Ms. Alexander relates.

Ms. Alexander says she and her roommate were then sent back to the third floor (I’m still wondering about that) and saw a guy named Steve. Who gave them good advice about filling out, filing and serving an Order to Show Cause so they could go before a judge and explain their situation.

A few days later they appeared in court and met the new landlord’s lawyer who reassured them there was no intention of evicting the tenants. Together, they drafted “an agreement stating that we would be allowed to stay even though our landlord was being evicted.” They all signed it, as did the judge.

The big lesson I’ve learned from Ms. Alexander’s experience is … well, there are a lot of big lessons. For one thing, I now understand that no one should sign a lease without confirming who owns the building one is about to rent in.

But the big lesson is: if you have any problem involving your residency and residence, go down to Housing Court, at 111 Centre Street, the second floor and pick up the numerous Housing Court booklets.

Maybe everyone who signs a lease — as a renter or even as a purchaser of a co-op — in the City of New York should be given, along with the lease, those Housing Court booklets.

As Tom Lehrer sang (this was long before the Boy Scouts made themselves pariahs), “Be prepared, that’s the Boy Scouts marching song.”

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