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

By Emily Myers | October 19, 2020 - 12:30PM 

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

If you end up in housing court for any reason, your name will typically come up in court data searched by tenant screening companies. This data is often called the tenant blacklist—even though it isn’t actually a list, it’s public information gathered by companies who provide the information they find, along with credit reports, to landlords when they vet tenants during the rental application process.

You may have wound up in court for non-payment of rent or because you purposely withheld rent to force your landlord to do repairs to a neglected apartment. The data doesn’t point out who was in the right—it just identifies that you got into a legal tussle with a landlord. 

The pandemic and the resulting economic fallout have increased the chances that many New Yorkers will end up fighting a landlord in housing court. Without federal relief, the eviction crisis in the city could arguably wipe out decades of progress on housing equity and push thousands into legal disputes. 

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article was published in October 2019. We are presenting it with updated information for October 2020.]

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—if their names came up as connected to housing court or eviction proceedings, you could be denied a rental. But the rent law has changed and, for many renters who face eviction or are looking for a place they can afford, the timing could not be more important. 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

The law, which changed in 2019, is intended to ensure renters feel confident about bringing legal action against a landlord who isn’t providing a safe and livable environment. 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 public data is problematic. For starters, it’s information that’s accessible to anyone. Landlords still want to vet their tenants, and 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 allow a tenant to sue a landlord for using court data to deny an application. This makes the law somewhat toothless. If you think you have been discriminated against in this way, you can take your case to the attorney general’s office

Screening companies provide data for landlords. RentPrep is one of these firms and owner, Stephen Micheal White, says New York landlords and property managers he works with have adjusted their processes and no longer request eviction or housing court information. However, he points out some are just raising other standards, “such as minimum credit scores or income to rent-ratios to offset their risks.” 

If you think your name will come up in a NYC housing court search, either erroneously or not, there are still good reasons to try and get your name removed. James Fishman, partner at Fishman Law, says it’s still possible a landlord will come up with some other 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 you suing your 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.

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