The family of three living on the Upper West Side stopped paying rent when they discovered their apartment was riddled with mold, causing the wife to fall seriously ill. When the landlord wouldn’t address the issue, they decided to move out, and fast, winding up in a hotel.
But their troubles didn't stop there. They ended up on the so-called tenant blacklist and subsequently had major problems securing future apartments.
These blacklists are not a new phenomenon, but New Yorkers have recently been paying more attention to them, and the problems associated with winding up on a list. (See, for example, these stories in the New York Daily News and WNYC.) But what do you really need to know? How do you stay off the list? And once you're on it, is there any way to get off?
WHAT'S THIS LIST AND WHO'S IT FOR?
All it takes to end up on one of these lists—collectively and informally known as the tenant blacklist—is being named in any one of the hundreds of thousands of cases filed in New York City housing court every year, regardless of the reason or the outcome. Whether you have a good relationship with your current landlord doesn't matter; in fact, landlords can't get you added to the list.
Instead, information from housing court is sold directly to tenant screening bureaus, who resell it (along with credit reports) to landlords vetting you during the rental application process, a practice that started around 15 years ago.
It’s not hard to see why landlords rely on this information. They don’t want a renter who’s been sued for not paying the rent, repeatedly paying it late, or being a nuisance, says Frank Ricci, the director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group for New York's landlords.
Accessing these databases is “just one of many tools that owners use to screen tenants,” Ricci says. “Getting the wrong tenant in the building is impossible to remedy without a lot of time and expense. So owners want to get it right the first time.”
But for tenants, the major issue is that the information is incomplete. The blacklist doesn’t provide any context for the case, such as who sued whom, the winning party, or whether there was a settlement.
“People are denied apartments based upon the fact that they were sued by a previous landlord regardless of why or what happened,” says James B. Fishman, a tenant's attorney with Fishman & Mallon LLP.
Benjamin J. Kallos, a City Council member who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, recently sponsored a bill to address the opacity of the tenant blacklist, the New York Times reports. Should the legislation be passed, it would require screening companies to provide more information about housing court cases, revealing whether a tenant successfully sued over issues like poor living conditions. In the meantime, though, the blacklist remains a disincentive for many tenants to fight unscrupulous landlords.
THE REAL PROBLEM FOR TENANTS
When a tenant withholds rent, regardless of the reason, a landlord can take them to housing court, which deals with cases involving non-payment of rent and evictions. Sometimes the landlord wins, and the court orders a tenant to pay back-rent or move out. Other times, the tenant wins, and is allowed to stay or gets a rent abatement. Most of the time, though, the case is settled out of court or dropped. Regardless, your name can wind up on a list.
Even when a tenant stops paying rent for legitimate reasons—say, they lack essential services or suffer from mold or vermin—if they wind up in court, they’ll end up on the list. In fact, even in cases that don’t involve money changing hands—like when you’re involved in a so-called possessory judgment, which allows a landlord to take an apartment back—you can still end up on the blacklist.
“I want to warn tenants that when landlords or their lawyers tell them that there’s no harm in agreeing to a possessory judgment because it isn’t for money, that is wrong,” says lawyer Jeff McAdams.
Because tenants are not informed that their name is in the databases, it’s difficult for them to protect themselves.
Perhaps most troublesome, the threat of ending up on the list has impacted how tenants react when something goes wrong with their apartment, McAdams says. "You have to ignore the rights you have and let landlords get away with mistreating you,” he says.
Not surprisingly, some tenants live in fear and won't withhold rent even if they do have apartment problems. “The decision of whether or not to litigate—whether or not to fight a case—is influenced by these blacklists," says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
WHAT'S A BLACKLISTED TENANT TO DO?
After the aforementioned Upper West Side family of three stopped paying their rent, they took the landlord to court. The landlord at the same time filed a case against them for non-payment. They were in and out of court for months, says Ronnie Fernandez, a real estate agent with Citi Habitats who helped them search for a rental after they wound up on the list.
When Fernandez met them, the case in housing court had “scarred up their records pretty bad,” he says. “The husband had housing red flags all over the place.”
Fernandez addressed the issue head-on with management companies, and while he found one or two willing to take them, they all wanted six to 12 months of rent upfront, an unaffordable option. They expanded their search to Brooklyn.
Fernandez recommended that they write an emotional letter about their struggle and the terms of the housing court case, which he attached to the front of their application. The broker found an owner of a small building in Greenpoint who was sympathetic to their case and accepted them without paying extra upfront after an in-person meeting.
In short, if you’re blacklisted, it’s going to be more difficult to rent an apartment—but that doesn't mean you can't find a place to live.
“I have never ever heard a client say to me, ‘as a result of being blacklisted, it was impossible for me to find an apartment,’” Himmelstein says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it just narrows the universe.”
Here are some strategies to help you get your foot in the door:
Disclose the issue upfront
Non-Profit Quarterly notes that tenants have the right to know why they were denied an apartment, so if you think something's fishy, consider requesting the criteria for tenant selection. Most landlords are willing to give a would-be tenant a chance to explain themselves, especially if there is only one black mark on their record, says the RSA's Ricci.
“Sometimes there’s a good reason for a late payment or a non-payment,” he says. If a tenant has a good explanation for the case, a future landlord will likely understand. “I know they listen to that and they take it into account,” he says.
Skip the big-time landlords
Not every landlord uses tenant screening bureaus to vet potential renters, McAdams says. Smaller landlords may be the way to go if you’re on the list, as even if they do use the reports, they may be more willing to understand the specifics of your situation.
Enlist your landlord's lawyer
In some cases, a landlord has taken a tenant to housing court to formalize an agreement about moving out of an apartment. In these cases, if the relationship between the former landlord and tenant is cordial, the tenant can ask the landlord’s lawyer to send a letter stating that they were a good tenant, McAdams says. This letter can then be attached to future rental applications.
Correct (or expand) the record
To see if your name appears in a database, you can request a report from a company that provides tenant-screening data, such as CoreLogic, TransUnion or On-Site—just give them a call. It generally costs $15 to $20, but up to $50, a fee that many landlords pass on as part of the lease application fee.
If there’s anything in the report about a housing court case, you should verify that the information is accurate, Fishman says, and if it’s not, ask the screening bureaus to remove it. Any case older than seven years—a time limit set by the Fair Credit Reporting Act—should be deleted from the report by the agency, Fishman says.
You can also request that the screening bureaus report the outcome of a case if you were sued in error. But this is a small victory, McAdams says, because a future landlord may not want someone who’s ever been involved in a court case, mistake or not.
Lastly, if you're on the list already and the information is accurate, unfortunately, “there is no remedy,” McAdams says. You can only minimize the impact.
BYPASS THE BLACKLIST IN THE FIRST PLACE
If you’re facing inhospitable conditions in your apartment but worry about winding up with a red flag on your record, there are other ways to get relief that are less likely to land you on the list. Note that any time you take a landlord to court, a future landlord may be less willing to rent to you if he or she discovers the past litigation.
File a “housing part” action
One of the major types of housing court litigation, a tenant-initiated HP (which stands for "housing part") involves the tenant suing the landlord for failing to comply with the law, particularly when it comes to building repairs, as well as the city for failing to enforce the law.
Fishman says that he's never seen a tenant blacklisted for going ahead with an HP.
Also, the process is straightforward: the tenant fills out a form to request an apartment inspection for any potential violations. The city then sends out an inspector and, if there are violations, a landlord can face steep fines, says Steve Wagner, an attorney with Wagner Berkow, who likes to refer to the HP proceeding as the “nuclear bomb." No lawyer is needed (so it costs practically nothing) and a tenant can file the paperwork at his or her local housing court.
If the court finds in the tenant’s favor, the landlord will be forced to make the repairs by a specific time.
Sue in small claims court or Supreme Court
Outside of an HP case, a tenant can also sue their landlord in these two other venues, Fishman says. Because these are not housing court cases, and are not initiated by the landlord, they will not land a tenant on the blacklist.
**Updated August 29, 2016. This post originally ran on August 8, 2014.**