Judge Urges NY To Act On Housing Court 'Nightmare'

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (August 24, 2020, 2:50 PM EDT) -- New York's legislature must intervene to prevent a looming "nightmare" situation in housing court, the president of the Housing Court Judges Association said Friday, as a top administrative judge also pushed the state's lawmakers to step up. 

Judge Daniele Chinea, president of the union representing 50 housing court judges in New York City, testified Friday at a state senate hearing. She said that legislators need to help residential landlords and tenants with their mounting debts, rather than leave it up to judges to exercise their discretion when both sides are claiming extreme financial strain with no end in sight.

"Asking 50 judges to adjudicate this nightmare on a case by case basis is not a solution, and we need a solution," Judge Chinea said. For example, she suggested, "a controlled debt reduction, where tenants' debts are reduced and landlords' mortgage debts are equally reduced."

Under the current circumstances, Judge Chinea said, her members are fumbling with outdated discretionary tools, from a time when financial hardship was less pervasive.

Although residential evictions cannot be executed in New York until Oct. 1 at the earliest, she noted, judges will soon be faced with more than 14,000 pending eviction warrants that predate the pandemic.

"A likely scenario we will face is a landlord makes a motion seeking to execute on one of the 14,500 active warrants currently stayed," Judge Chinea said. "The tenant responds. They have already agreed to a debt. They have already agreed to be evicted if they don't pay that debt. Now they owe several more months' [rent], and maybe have no plan for how they're going to pay ongoing rent."

Meanwhile, "the landlord is faced with mounting debt and no clear or documentable way of paying it … As a judge, how can I weigh this personal tragedy against an ever mounting unsecured debt obligation being forced upon the landlord?"

Judge Chinea acknowledged Friday that the state legislature has made some efforts to help judges navigate the pandemic.

For example, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act prohibits evicting tenants for unpaid rent accrued between March 7 and the complete reopening of their area, so long as tenants can prove in court that they experienced financial hardship during that period.

It would be helpful, Chinea suggested, to legislate a hardship standard for landlords as well, to distinguish between corporate landlords and smaller property owners.

"These corporate landlords have the same opportunity as these smaller landlords to seek their money, so I think in order to better prioritize our time and our efforts, it would be beneficial for landlords to show their need and their urgency," she said.

Also on Friday, state legislators heard testimony from Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, whose administrative orders have determined which housing court cases resume and when.

Marks defended his recent decision to stay residential evictions at least until Oct. 1, well past the expiration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's blanket eviction moratorium, citing a backlog of 200,000 pending cases. 

But he also suggested that he is not willing to be the arbiter much longer.

"Oct. 1 may be, for us at least, a hard deadline," Marks said. "This obviously implicates very controversial and hotly contested policy issues. We are obviously the judiciary and not the policy-making arm of government … Frankly, the state can't rely on us indefinitely to address that very controversial issue."

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Tenant advocates are currently backing state bills that would reinstate a blanket eviction moratorium and cancel rent and certain mortgage payments for months beyond New York's ongoing state of emergency, while landlords call for robust rental assistance from the government.

A new $100 million rent relief fund for qualifying tenants has received 90,000 applications and will only begin to address the statewide need, legislators said Friday. 

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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