Landlord-tenant issues may be a fact of life in New York City, but they usually don’t make national news. In recent months, however, Americans have read about squatters in the city taking up residence in quiet residential neighborhoods, tenants refusing to pay rent for years on end, and even police arresting landlords for exercising their property rights. These glimpses into hellish New York housing situations have challenged conventional narratives of predatory landlords and powerless tenants. The reality is much different, as former Chief Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern District of New York wrote: “Evicting a tenant—especially a residential tenant—in New York is a slow, cumbersome and extremely tenant-favorable process, especially when compared to analogous procedures in other states.”

The first circle of New York’s housing Inferno, its five borough housing courts, resembles Dante’s Limbo, where lost souls dwell in “sorrow without torment.” In their hallways and courtrooms, glum-faced litigants and attorneys seek redress. Tenants, some facing genuine hardship and others merely well-versed in housing-court practices, are given ample opportunities to negotiate with landlords. Court attorneys often mediate these negotiations, which happen under the looming shadow of the alternative—trials that routinely last well over a year.

Legal-services attorneys and tenant advocates are also a fixture of housing courts, providing information and advice to those facing eviction. Tenants earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit have the right to an attorney in eviction proceedings under the Universal Access to Counsel (UAC) program, passed in 2017 by Mayor Bill de Blasio. These specialist attorneys increase their clients’ leverage through procedural delays. For example, requests to the court (“orders to show cause”) compel landlords to produce extra documents or ask the court to provide tenants with relief, such as rescheduling a missed court appearance. Facing monthly operational and finance costs, landlords capitulate to expediency and offer tenants settlements, including forgiving rents or even offering cash payouts for promises to vacate, an arrangement known as “cash for keys.” Landlords know that it’s often better to pay to remove a problem tenant than to endure the uncertainty and delay of the tenant-friendly housing-court system.

Despite their titles, the 50 presiding officials in housing courts are not judges under the state constitution. Instead, they are lawyers deemed qualified by a 14-member Housing Court Advisory Council, composed of representatives of various interest groups, the mayor, and the commissioner of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal. In practice, nominees frequently come from the ranks of legal-services attorneys—another reason why tenants routinely get the benefit of the doubt. After appointment by the administrative judge for the civil court, housing-court judges serve for renewable five-year terms.

Squatters dwell a few circles lower in the New York housing netherworld. Over the past several months, stories of trespassers living in vacant housing units have drawn national attention, sometimes for tragic reasons. Consider Nadia Vitel, who in March traveled from Spain to arrange her late mother’s Kips Bay apartment in anticipation of a friend’s stay. She opened the door to find a pair of squatters living there. The duo allegedly killed her, stuffed her corpse in a duffel bag, and placed the bag in a closet. According to law-enforcement sources, the pair fled to Pennsylvania using Vitel’s Lexus SUV and, after running up bills on her credit cards, got caught after crashing the vehicle outside of Harrisburg. In late May, a 21-year-old Venezuelan migrant squatting in a vacant Bronx apartment building allegedly shot and killed two longtime residents after an altercation. The squatter had been arrested previously at least six times for robbery and gun charges, including for crimes purportedly committed while riding on a moped.

Contrary to public perception and many media reports, New York State and City laws do not give those trespassing on vacant properties protection from eviction after 30 consecutive days of residence. Those lawfully occupying a dwelling for at least that period can’t be removed without a housing-court warrant of eviction. But trespassers aren’t lawfully present, so landlords are within their rights to call the police, change the locks, and engage in other forms of self-help to remove unwanted inhabitants. In many cases, however, trespassers know that they can avoid immediate removal by producing documentation purporting to establish ownership or tenancy.

A fake lease can be the difference between police escorting either the squatters or the landlord out the front door. In one high-profile incident in February, a Queens landlord, accompanied by a local news camera, entered her late father’s home to discover two male squatters inside. After police escorted one squatter off the premises, he returned shortly after with another man who claimed he had a lease for the house. In the interim, the landlord hired a locksmith to change the locks. The purported lessee asserted that the landlord was unlawfully evicting him, and police arrested the landlord. The alleged squatter later demanded that the landlord pay him $18,000 for repairs and improvements he supposedly made. Following an investigation, the Queens County District Attorney’s office dropped the charges against the landlord and, in April, charged the alleged squatter with a five-count indictment, including multiple felonies. If convicted, the perpetrator faces a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

This story represents a mostly happy ending for the landlord. Other cases cost landlords far more time and money to resolve. Police are, quite understandably, hesitant to second-guess a purported tenant producing a forged lease or other documentation claiming to establish legitimate residency. Police are likewise reluctant to arrest landlords for illegal evictions. Cops aren’t trained to adjudicate civil matters or to play the role of factfinder. Officers who, for example, arrest a lawful occupant could face serious repercussions, including lawsuits.

Squatting is thought to be statistically rare in New York City (reliable data are scarce), but it can spell ruin for landlords, often highly leveraged in a capital-intensive city like New York. As a practical matter, to remove occupants with purportedly valid documentation, landlords can undertake special eviction proceedings in housing court. Though the initial notice to quit the property is reduced to ten days, landlords must still endure the vagaries and delays of housing court. Further, many squatters are judgment-proof. Even if landlords succeed in removing trespassers through a special eviction proceeding or self-help, chances are slim that they will recover the expenses of forgone rent, possible repairs, and unpaid utilities. Lawful tenants refusing to pay rent can likewise pressure landlords to forgive past-due rent or even make a “cash for keys” payoff.

Small landlords face the most serious risks. These owners cannot average the costs of bad-faith tenants over a large portfolio; one or two can cause financial ruin. Small landlords usually depend heavily on rental cash flows to pay the mortgage—sometimes for a house they live in. They thus have a financial incentive to get along with their tenants, lest they put their investment or their own dwelling in jeopardy.

Owner-occupant landlords bear the additional risk of living with someone they loathe or even fear. New York’s laws prevent landlords from being choosy in the tenant-selection process. For example, source-of-income antidiscrimination laws prohibit landlords from excluding those seeking to pay rent through housing vouchers; only owner-occupants in one- and two-family homes are exempt. New York State’s 2019 Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act further prohibits landlords from denying rental applications because of past landlord-tenant actions or summary proceedings.

Progressives seeking to downplay the plight of small landlords often deny the problem exists. They quickly cite statistics showing, for example, that the average apartment registered with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in New York City is owned by a landlord with 21 properties and 893 units. This tactic runs against the Left’s usual focus on “lived experience” and the difficulties facing minority communities. Though there’s no hard limit on the number of units a landlord can own and still be considered “small,” the most recent state budget provided an exception to those with ten units or fewer. Regardless, in absolute terms, small landlords represent a significant population. The New York Housing Conference, a tenant-advocacy organization, estimated in January 2024 that owners occupy 211,237 units in buildings with two or three units.

Many small landlords are from blue-collar, immigrant, and minority backgrounds. According to the Rent Stabilization Association, about 70 percent of its 25,000 members own one or two buildings. While city-specific data on rental ownership demographics are unavailable, the Urban Institute has found that, nationwide, 13 percent of owners of buildings with four or fewer units are black, and 15 percent are Hispanic.

Landlords dealing with unremovable tenants who are also abusive and menacing find themselves at the lowest circle of New York’s housing hell, with no upside and no certainty about when or whether the law will allow repossession. Take Vanie Mangal’s horror story, detailed in the New York Times. Mangal, a first-generation Guyanese American, lives in a modest multifamily home in South Ozone Park, Queens, owned by her mother. To earn some extra income, Mangal’s mother rented the first-floor apartment for $1,600 and the basement for $800. Mangal, a physician assistant enduring the stresses of caregiving during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, returned home to one tenant who banged on the ceiling, yelled incessantly, and spat on her. The other keyed her car and dumped her packages in the garbage.

Neither tenant paid rent for months. When the Times story ran in the summer of 2021, the first-floor tenants were in arrears for 15 months and owed more than $24,000 in back rent. When they finally left in January 2024—fleeing the day before the marshal was set to evict them—they owed at least $48,800. They also left rotting meat in the apartment, ripped out circuit breakers and the thermostat, and drove a large nail into the couch cushion. Mangal, unsurprisingly, isn’t renting the apartment again. “I can’t trust that the law is going to be on my side if this were to happen again,” she said.

Tales like Mangal’s are part of the reason why small landlords have been gradually handing over their keys to large corporate entities. Small landlords operate in a competitive business on tight margins that often necessitate self-management. They don’t have lawyers on retainer to deal with housing court. In a city struggling with severe rent burdens and a record-low vacancy rate, small landlords provide some of the most affordable housing in the city, partly because many are not profit-maximizing economic actors. Owner-occupants are naturally more risk averse—nobody wants to be stuck in Mangal’s situation—so they’ll wait longer before renting and accept lower rent in exchange for well-behaved tenants.

The Covid-19 pandemic marked a turning point for many small landlords. Between March 7, 2020, and January 15, 2022, tenants were protected from eviction for nonpayment of rent through a series of state and federal laws and executive orders. Though the moratoria were perhaps understandable at a time when many were unable to work, they conditioned tenants to stop paying rent. By August 2023, New York’s public housing system, NYCHA, saw its rent collection rate drop to 63 percent, down from 95 percent pre-2020. Unsurprisingly, forgiving some rent arrears resulted in tenants falling further behind. Why pay if there’s a chance of forgiveness? 

Fundamentally, New York’s housing laws and enforcement practices come from the presumption that landlords, even small landlords, are in the wrong. In a city where nearly 70 percent of residents rent, many resent those collecting the biggest part of their paychecks. The city undoubtedly has its share of bad-actor landlords, but tenant protections have effectively empowered anti-social behavior from bad-faith tenants. In a city that provides more than 140,000 no-cost shelter beds to the homeless and newly arrived migrants, there’s little reason to sympathize with squatters and other opportunists failing to follow the law.

Any meaningful relief to landlords should come not as subsidies but through reforms of legal enforcement mechanisms. Tenant advocates and attorneys, however, have an interest in preventing housing court from speeding up too much. Longer case dispositions mean more leverage for tenants, encouraging landlords to give more ground on back rents or even cash inducements to leave. But it’s not the lawyers’ job to play the role of policymaker.

The fault rests with a system that has failed to develop the capacity to deal with housing actions expeditiously, especially as recent tenant protections like UAC have slowed case dispositions. For example, the intake procedure to determine prospective tenants’ eligibility for free legal counsel slows the start of proceedings. Delays have persisted or worsened even as the number of new eviction filings has declined sharply since 2020.

Housing courts’ resources pale in comparison with tenant-protection programs. In fiscal year 2022, UAC cost $166 million, exclusively from city sources, which went to 19 legal-services nonprofits. By contrast, in the most recent budget, the state legislature granted $38.1 million for New York City’s housing courts, an increase of 24.4 percent from the year prior. While most of that went toward higher salaries, some was spent on adding five more judgeships. But this small drop in the bucket followed years of essentially flat budgets amid red-hot inflation and a crushing backlog of more than 200,000 cases that accumulated between March 2020 and January 2022, when pandemic eviction moratoria prevented cases from proceeding.

Can any politically practicable reforms correct New York’s housing deficiencies? The most straightforward would boost the capacity of housing court by dramatically increasing the number of judges. Last year, the city’s housing courts disposed of 239,287 cases, especially impressive given that there are only 50 housing-court judges, a figure that has not changed in over a quarter century. With more judges and court staff, who handle informal negotiations between litigants, the system could dispose of cases faster.

Some landlords have turned to higher courts to compel operational changes in housing court. In February, the LeFrak Organization, the family-owned real estate company best known for the eponymous “city” of middle-class housing in Elmhurst, Queens, took the unusual step of suing New York City’s housing-court system in a state trial court. The delays in housing court, the complaint alleges, are illegally in excess of the roughly monthlong summary eviction proceedings contemplated by Article 7 of the state Real Property Law. Abiding by the statutory timeframe would require, for example, a trial date to be set no later than eight days after the tenant has filed his answer. Because current practices often lead to trial dates a year after the first scheduled court date, an eight-day deadline would end the court’s frequent adjournments that occur without request by one of the parties.

Tenant advocates have pushed back. In a May memorandum of law asking the court to dismiss LeFrak’s complaint, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC retorted that the plaintiffs’ “attempt to turn the courts into a conveyor belt for evictions ignores the court’s autonomy and its inherent powers over proceedings.” The particularized needs of each litigant and judges’ “inherent power to ensure just results in disputes,” they contend, mean that “such delays are necessary in order for the court to meet its most basic function of adjudicating cases fairly and providing people a fair chance to be heard.” Statutory compliance must, according to these advocates, yield to fairness and judicial independence. Even so, is it reasonable for litigants to expect relatively straightforward nonpayment cases to drag on for well over a year?

Regardless of the legal merits or eventual outcome of the case, more data on the length of dispositions and other efficiency metrics could help the court identify areas for process improvements. The court system provides a statewide eviction-filing dashboard, but it doesn’t track court efficiency. Expanding the use of remote court appearances can also prevent delays stemming from missing court dates and subsequent requests to order a new one. AI and other automation may facilitate process improvements, especially for UAC intake procedures and other routine matters.

Reformers have also long sought to lengthen judges’ terms to ten years, which would relive the Advisory Council from burdens associated with an expanded court system. Longer terms and more judges, though, won’t end practices like adjourning trial or delaying the issuance of eviction warrants. Changing the way housing-court judges get nominated, such as by moving to a nonpartisan committee of housing-law experts, could also reduce the court’s tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to tenants where it may not be warranted. But to achieve operational reforms, those administering the court system must be willing to accept the desirability of shorter case durations, which will mean holding tenants more accountable. That’s not a given. Even in the reformist heyday of the 1990s, housing court presented many of the same problems.

As for squatting, in the most recent state budget, lawmakers clarified the distinction between it and tenancy. As the Empire Center’s Cam MacDonald explains, this change will likely prove more chimerical than corrective. Because the law didn’t previously give tenant protections to those unlawfully taking up residence, the clarification, as MacDonald writes, “may give property owners greater confidence to enlist assistance from the police in self-help evictions, but it didn’t change the rights they already had.” Instead, collecting reliable data on squatters would allow the court system to allocate sufficient resources to expedite special proceedings against squatters. And given the civil system’s delays, district attorneys have a special role to deter trespassing through consistent, vigorous prosecution of squatting.

New York’s lawmakers should use the embarrassment and confusion of its recent squatting incidents to save its residents, tenants, and landlords alike from the city’s housing hell. Instead of rewarding anti-social and unlawful behavior, housing courts should provide for a fair, orderly, predictable, and timely eviction process. Housing in New York City shouldn’t be expensive for everyone except for those unwilling to pay.

Photo: mrdoomits / iStock / Getty Images Plus


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