What is the tenant blacklist and how serious is being on it?

As a result of New York state's new rent laws, landlords can no longer refuse to rent to you if they find out you have a complicated tenant-landlord history.

Emily Myers for Brick Underground

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If you withheld rent from a landlord because of problems with your apartment, like mold or no gas—your name is likely on a database of people involved in a NYC housing court case. This is often called the tenant blacklist even though it isn’t actually a list, it’s public information gathered by screening companies who provide the data, along with credit reports, to landlords when they vet tenants during the rental application process.

In the past, going to housing court, regardless of the reason or the outcome, could create problems down the road for tenants looking to rent in New York City again. However, as a result of the New York state new rent laws, landlords can no longer refuse to rent to you if they find out you have a complicated tenant-landlord history

Impact of rent reforms on the blacklist

This is a significant change, with the intention of freeing up renters feeling too intimidated to fight a court case against a landlord who isn’t providing a safe and livable environment. Withholding rent is an important tool for tenants where the warranty of habitability is being breached and landlords who use housing court information to screen incoming tenants now face a fine of up to $1,000 if the attorney general investigates. 

However, banning the use of this data is problematic. For starters, it’s public information. Landlords, quite rightly, want to vet their tenants, but it is fair to say they may decide the penalty of weeding out troublemakers in this way is still worth the risk if they get caught. 

The other issue with the new law is that it is hard to enforce and doesn’t go far enough to allow a tenant to sue a landlord, making it somewhat toothless. If you think you have been discriminated in this way, you can take your case to the attorney general’s office

Steve Micheal White, the owner of Rent Prep, a national screening company that provides data for landlords, says in order to comply with the law, the larger NYC landlords who he provides data to have adjusted their screening processes and no longer include housing court information. 

If you think your name will come up in a NYC housing court search, either erroneously or not, there are still good reasons try and get your name removed. James Fishman, partner at Fishmanlaw, says it’s still possible a landlord will come up with a “pretextual reason to reject you.” He also points out the law preventing discrimination for involvement in housing court only applies in New York state so if you move out of state, your record is available to an out-of-state landlord.

There are still ways to get your name removed from the system or secure an apartment in NYC regardless. If your apartment has issues like pests or a lack of services, there are also paths you can take to remedy the situation that avoid housing court. 

Enlist your landlord's lawyer

Consider this scenario: A landlord has taken a tenant to housing court to formalize an agreement about moving out of an apartment. If the relationship between the former landlord and tenant is cordial, Sam Himmelstein, a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph (and Brick sponsor) says the terms of the settlement can include the condition that the landlord provide a letter of recommendation and a positive reference. This letter can be attached to future rental applications. 

Additionally, if you know a lawsuit is coming down the pipe and have an attorney lined up you may be able to reach out to the landlord's attorney and request they name you only as John or Jane Doe instead of your true name so the housing court information remains anonymous. Himmelstein says most landlords will agree to this. 

Wait it out

Any case older than seven years—a time limit set by the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act—will not come up in a search of NYC housing court data. Fishman says there is also a New York statute that arguably has a five-year rule so some screening companies won’t use data older than that. 

Bypass the blacklist in the first place

Instead of taking your case to NYC housing court, another route to take is a tenant-initiated Housing Part action. This 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.

HPs are fairly straightforward: the tenant fills out a form to request an apartment inspection for violations. The city sends out an inspector and, if there are violations, a landlord can face steep fines. If the court finds in the tenant’s favor, the landlord will be forced to make the repairs by a specific time. 

—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Anne Machalinski.