I owe six months of rent. Now that the eviction ban has ended, can my landlord take me to court? What should I expect?
It’s clear that the housing court administration (and the landlords and their lawyers) are eager to get cases moving again, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer with the firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. What is less clear is how housing courts will manage the huge backlog of cases that built up during the pandemic.
“There is a system being set up in which people with cases in housing court will be expected to attend an initial live appearance,” Himmelstein says. “Unrepresented litigants who qualify for free legal services will be matched up with lawyers, and then there will subsequently be a hybrid of in-person and Zoom appearances. But the number of pending cases is in the hundreds of thousands, and we don’t know the order in which they’ll be processed.”
In addition to the many cases that were stayed due to pandemic restrictions, landlords will now be able to begin eviction proceedings against tenants who have stopped paying their rent. This includes tenants who previously submitted a hardship declaration form to their landlords or housing court, and tenants who received support from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Tenants with pending applications for ERAP will be granted a stay from any court proceedings.
“Economic hardship as a result of the pandemic or poor health are no longer grounds for an automatic stay of an eviction proceeding,” says Ronald Languedoc, a partner with HMGJ Law.
Landlords can initiate proceedings against these tenants, and can also continue cases that were pending in court prior to the pandemic shutdown. Tenants can still raise a defense under the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which means housing courts will not allow possessory judgments (eviction) for nonpayment of rent if tenants can prove they experienced economic hardship between March 16th, 2020 and June 15th, 2021. Their landlord can still collect a money judgment, which requires tenants to pay the landlord the rent they owe.
In order to begin eviction proceedings, landlords must serve tenants with a nonpayment petition if the issue is non-payment of rent or a holdover petition if the landlord seeks possession of the apartment. If a tenant fails to respond, new guidance issued earlier this month requires that landlords make a motion leading to a court date, at which point tenants can connect with attorneys.
“Tenants are advised to read their notice of petition and petition carefully, preferably with the help of an attorney, to be sure to meet those deadlines and get their answers filed on time,” Languedoc says.
Courts are also moving to handle more of their proceedings digitally. New cases will be electronically filed, although tenants who prefer hard copies of papers can request them, and will have to respond by filing in person at the courthouse. Court appearances will take place both virtually, over video, and in person, at the discretion of judges.
Note that if you can’t afford an attorney, you may qualify for free legal aid through the city’s Right to Counsel program.
“The sooner a tenant seeks the advice and counsel of an experienced attorney, the better,” Languedoc says.
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Sam Himmelstein, Esq. represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts, and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph in Manhattan. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.