Housing Court in NYC... to sue, or not to sue

Published on Feb 8, 2011

Brick Underground today posted a list of tips for getting your landlord to fix stuff in your apartment.  A couple of their tips involved withholding rent, and taking your landlord to NYC Housing Court, although with some caveats.

The real estate lawyer that they cited in their post rightfully referred to taking your property manager or owner to housing court as the "Nuclear Bomb." Sure, it may ultimately result in the repairs being done, but at what cost?  Tenants need to be aware of some potential unintended consequences.

First, what will this do to your relationship with your landlord?  When it comes time to renew your lease, if your lease is NOT rent controlled, or rent stabilized, then the landlord does not have to offer you a renewal... and if you refuse to leave at the end of your lease, he can have you evicted.  Or, he may offer to renew the lease, but at a substantially higher rent.

If you have a rent controlled, or rent stabilized lease, you have greater protections for lease renewals, and of course you're protected against large rent increases.  But that could also lead to a rather "chilly" relationship with your landlord regardless.  And just because you took him or her to court once, doesn't mean you'll get quicker attention next time.  In fact, it could lead to just the opposite--stalling and delaying for as long as they possibly can.

Now, if you have maintenance issues severe enough to take a landlord to court, then perhaps you don't wish to live there once your lease is up.  But if you do, remember that withholding rent, or suing a landlord in New York City Housing Court, should be a last resort if you want to maintain a good relationship with your landlord.

Second, and what most tenant do not think about, is that once you sue a landlord, you now, in effect, have a "record," similar to if you were arrested and convicted of a crime. Many, if not most property managers and owners in NYC will run what is called a "housing court check" as part of their background screening when you apply for an apartment.  Some will even charge you a separate fee for this (like they do for credit checks).  Currently (and this is the subject of much controversy), all a housing court check does is check to see if you've been involved in any litigation with your landlord.  It doesn't tell your potential landlord if you sued, or were sued, and it doesn't tell them who won.  Bottom line... if you were involved in a housing court case, many landlords in NYC will not rent to you.

Now, this may not seem fair, but quite honestly most landlords don't care who won, or whether or not you were "in the right." All they care about is that you were involved in a matter that escalated to the level of going to court.  In their eyes, you are a potential "problem" tenant... either because you are more likely to sue a landlord, or because your actions caused a landlord to sue you.  That's the reality of the situation--it's the NYC real estate equivalent of the expression, "being dead right."

Does this mean you shouldn't take a landlord to Housing Court in NYC?  Absolutely not.  In some instances, unfortunately, it may be your only recourse.  However, you should do your best to resolve whatever issues you have with that landlord in another way, no matter how much of a pain in the... patootie you think they are. The ramifications of going to housing court may follow you for years to come, every time you go to rent a new apartment.

For more information on your rights, Tenant.net is a great resource.

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