Rat Infestation? Leaky Ceiling? Good Luck in Court

Tenants say judges are taking too long to resolve repair cases since the pandemic began.

illustration of a bent hammer and a bent judge's gavel against a backdrop of apartment buildings.
Photo-Illustration: Curbed/Getty Images
illustration of a bent hammer and a bent judge's gavel against a backdrop of apartment buildings.
Photo-Illustration: Curbed/Getty Images

During the pandemic, Joyce Webster was twice bitten by a rat in her Crown Heights studio apartment. The rodents entered through holes in the walls, ate her food, and left droppings behind. She told her landlord, but when he didn’t solve the problem, she spent $500 to buy poison and some materials to plug up the holes — a major expense on her fixed income. (Her landlord said he sent an exterminator to her apartment, but that it was too cluttered for remediation.) Meanwhile, the rats keep finding their way in.

But this is just the latest in Webster’s years-long fight for basics like a stove and cooking gas. In February, the building’s boiler broke and left her without heat; it’s still not working. A few weeks ago, she had only hot water, not cold. The 58-year-old’s apartment is “infested” with roaches, she said, and there’s mold all over her bathroom, which she blames for her asthma. Her landlord said that he would be sending someone to deal with the mold in early July, although he accused her of making up problems. “I’ve done everything correct and to the law, and I’m willing to correct any issues, although it might be fabricated or mischievously done,” he said.

A dead rat in Joyce Webster’s apartment. Photo: Joel Feingold of the Crown Heights Tenants Association

The situation was so stressful that Webster began seeing a psychiatrist. She also took her landlord to housing court. She has done this before with other landlords. But this time, her case has moved at an excruciatingly slow pace through the courts.

Every time Webster and her attorney logged into the virtual hearings, they faced a different judge, each saying that he couldn’t hear the motion because he was new to the case and would adjourn for another six weeks. Neither the case she filed in September 2020 nor the one she submitted in May last year have been resolved. When her lawyer sued to hold the landlord in contempt for failing to make a repair, the judge did not penalize the landlord or give another court date on all of the other outstanding issues. “The judges — they sitting on their tushes, and they’re not forcing the landlords to do what they’re supposed to do,” Webster said.

It has never been easy to get a judge to rule that a New York City landlord must make repairs. While there are numerous courtrooms dedicated to eviction cases, there’s generally only one in each borough devoted to hearing the repair and harassment cases brought by tenants against their landlords. And housing lawyers said that the process has all but ground to a halt during the pandemic. At hearings, judges are simply scheduling cases weeks or months in the future without mandating that landlords make any fixes in the meantime. Vance Gathing, senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC, said that, before the pandemic, “We would never expect the court date to be more than about four weeks out.” But during the pandemic, when he brought cases on behalf of disabled veterans who had no heat in the winter, the judges set dates for the first court hearing two or three months later.

The brown water that Toro lived with for four years. Photo: Denise Toro

Denise Toro, a tenant in Astoria, attended four court dates after she filed a repair case in January. Her water had turned a deep, dirty brown after the owners of the building where she has lived for 43 years decided to renovate. “We’re talking like coffee,” the 64-year-old said in a thick New York City accent. She endured cold showers for four years until this year, when she finally filed against her landlord to make repairs. But at the hearings, she wasn’t allowed to speak, and “the judge just would not issue an order to correct,” she said. The issue was finally resolved when a plumber made the repair in June (unrelated to a court order).

There used to be “a sense of urgency getting repairs done,” said Jennie Stephens-Romero, an attorney at Make the Road New York, which is part of the city’s Anti-Harassment Tenant Protection program for repair and harassment cases. In the past, judges ruled that landlords sign settlements that had concrete dates for workers to access apartments to make repairs or even set deadlines by which all the repairs had to be made. Attorneys tried not to leave the courtroom without these orders.

But since March 2020, Stephens-Romero said she hasn’t gotten a single consent order — a settlement between the landlord and tenant that lays out all the repairs that need to be made and sets a deadline for completion. Rachel Nager, senior associate at Rozen Law Group, said she hadn’t gotten a consent order “in quite some time.” Stephens-Romero said that she’s heard landlords complain in court that they didn’t have the income to make repairs, because tenants weren’t paying rent and the eviction moratorium meant they couldn’t kick them out. “I wouldn’t be surprised if judges have internalized” that idea, she said.

A committee of housing lawyers formed in early 2021 to try to fix the process, and members consistently complained that cases “were taking so long,” said Zachary Hale, a lawyer who chairs the committee. Many said that judges seem unwilling to penalize landlords who refused to make court-ordered repairs.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the New York court system, said, “A significant mission of the New York City Housing Court is the enforcement of housing standards, and the judges who serve in the HP parts take that mission seriously,” but he declined to comment on individual cases. He said the Association of Housing Court Judges, which represents these judges, has planned a “refresher training” on repair cases in September.

The slow pace of repair cases over the past several years is especially confounding considering that the courts could have potentially resolved more of them while the state’s eviction moratorium was in place. With the moratorium lifted, the judges who had been available to take repair cases are back to ruling on evictions, leaving just one courtroom in most boroughs dealing with repairs. Brooklyn is the exception, where Supervising Judge Cheryl J. Gonzales has added a courtroom. But that’s just one extra venue in one jurisdiction — compared to nine venues for evictions.

The lifting of the eviction moratorium has also diverted lawyers from repair and harassment cases to help their overwhelmed colleagues in the right-to-counsel program. There was a 900 percent increase in Bronx tenants facing eviction without legal representation in March, and in April, right-to-counsel lawyers in Queens said they couldn’t accept new clients. The city has started asking lawyers in the Anti-Harassment Tenant Protection program to take them on. That’s what has happened at Stephens-Romero’s office, and the city asked her and her team to take on even more cases in July.

This leaves many tenants to fight their repair cases by themselves. JustFix, a nonprofit that creates online tools for housing issues, made an app early in the pandemic that allowed tenants to file from their phones. It was used by about 3,000 people in the span of a year. But it only worked because the court had waived a requirement to get paperwork notarized. The court has since reinstituted that requirement.

Many people cannot simply wait out their legal limbo in substandard, dangerous housing until their homes are repaired. Some may decide to leave. “If the quality of the housing suffers because landlords don’t make repairs, tenants will self-evict; they’ll move out,” said Sateesh Nori, executive director of JustFix. Those are the kinds of departures that aren’t included in official eviction statistics.

For her part, Webster has no plans to leave the apartment she has lived in since 1985. “People tell me to move out of here,” she said. But her rent is cheap, and she loves her neighborhood and the community she has built. “That’s why I put up with all this crap,” she said.

Rat Infestation? Leaky Ceiling? Good Luck in Court