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The dreaded tenant blacklist: What you need to know

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For one family of three living on the Upper West Side, the nightmare started when they discovered their apartment was riddled with mold, causing the wife to fall seriously ill. The family stopped paying rent, and when the landlord wouldn’t address the issue, they decided to move out, 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.

If you haven't encountered them before, consider yourself lucky, because blacklists are not a new phenomenon, but they're not widely understood either. So 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?

[Editor's note: You can no longer be denied an apartment on the basis of being on the tenant blacklist thanks to new tenant protections signed into law in June 2019. A landlord would be flouting the law if they got information from a tenant screening office or if they looked through court records and then refused to rent to you. The penalty for a landlord using information in this way is a fine of up to $1,000. A previous version of this story ran in 2018. It has been updated with new information for June 2019.]

What's the tenant blacklist and who's it for?

All it takes to end up on a 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 are not the ones that add you to the list.

Rather, tenant screening bureaus comb public court computers for cases and match them to the names and addresses of tenants, then sell the data along with credit reports to landlords vetting prospective tenants during the rental application process.

It’s not hard to see why landlords would want to rely on this information. They don’t want a renter who’s been sued for not paying the rent, repeatedly paid it late, or been a nuisance, says Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group for New York's landlords. 

Accessing these databases has been “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.”

For tenants, one of the major issues 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 have been are "denied apartments based upon the fact that they were sued by a previous landlord regardless of why or what happened,” says James Fishman, a tenant's attorney at Fishman Law. 

Thanks to landmark rent reforms, as of June 2019, landlords can no longer refuse to rent to prospective tenants solely because they appear on a tenant blacklist. Tenants should feel less intimidated to fight unscrupulous landlords, but that's not to say landlords will stop using the list. They may decide the penalty for weeding out tenants this way is worth the fine if they get caught. 

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 nonpayment 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 he winds up in court, he’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. 

“It’s wrong for landlords or their lawyers to say that because possessory judgments aren’t for money, there’s no harm to your credit ratings," says attorney Jeff McAdams. "Credit reporting agencies see ‘judgment’ and think, ‘bad credit risk.’ It’ll give your credit rating a 20 percent hit, whether the judgment is for money, or just possession of your apartment.” 

Because tenants are not informed that their names are in the databases (and often aren't aware of how to get that information), it’s difficult for them to protect themselves. 

The threat of ending up on the list has had impacts on how tenants react when landlords overcharge them or something goes wrong with their apartments, McAdams says.

The decision of whether or not to litigate—whether or not to fight a case—has, until now, been "influenced by these blacklists," says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations (and a Brick Underground sponsor).

What's a blacklisted tenant to do?

If you’re blacklisted, it should now not influence whether or not you can rent an apartment—but that never meant 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.” 

Ellen Davidson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of NYC, says the new rules banning landlords from using the tenant blacklists are a "first attempt" to have state legislation on the issue and it will be a matter of seeing how it pans out in practice. 

If you're still concerned, here are some strategies to help you get your foot in the door: 

Disclose the issue up front

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 himself, especially if there is only one black mark on his record, says the RSA's Ricci.

“Sometimes there’s a good reason for a late payment or a nonpayment,” he says. “I know they listen to that and they take it into account."

Skip the big-time landlords 

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 he was 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-$20, but can run 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, he 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 try to minimize the impact.

Bypassing 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 (a Brick sponsor), 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 state 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.

Ask to remain anonymous

If you know a lawsuit is coming down the pike, "reach out to the landlord's attorney before the landlord files a case requesting that they name the tenant only as John or Jane Doe instead of the tenant's true name," Fishman says. "This is best done with an attorney."