The shortage of judges in NY’s Housing Court is causing massive pain for both tenants and landlords
When Gov. Kathy Hochul two weeks ago signed a bill expanding the number of judges in certain judicial districts and Family Court, one branch of the judiciary inexplicably wasn’t included: Housing Court. That oversight is tragic, because Housing Court is in severe need of additional judges, staffing and resources to ease an enormous backlog. Without speedier resolutions of cases, both tenants — and even more so, landlords — will face enormous hardship.
Poor and minority New Yorkers rely heavily on Housing Court. Yet so do small property owners, like 96-year-old Bill Pantano, whose tenant hasn’t paid rent in three years, primarily because of a deeply flawed Housing Court system that allows a tenant to take advantage of a nonagenarian who depends on the rent for 80% of his retirement income.
All other New York courts have lifted COVID-ordered operational restrictions, yet Housing Court remains in a nearly two-and-a-half-year state of suspended animation. Lawmakers also used the pandemic to impose what was for landlords a painful and unjust two-year eviction moratorium. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program rollout proved disastrous. And an alarming shortage of judges and staff has only grown worse.
Housing Court had been operating with only 50 or so judges before the pandemic. A retirement-induced exodus and COVID-related limitations that are still in play (only for Housing Court) cut the number of cases being heard and worsened a backlog that has denied both owners and tenants their rightful day in court.
Advocates like the Legal Aid Society claim that keeping cases out of Housing Court protects tenants against eviction. The opposite is true: The court solves tenant-landlord disputes, and in the majority of nonpayment cases, tenants wind up receiving rent relief through government programs that keep them in their homes while letting owners maintain their buildings and pay their bills.
Yet lawmakers have now created a system in which tenants receive automatic eviction protection. ERAP places the burden on owners to provide housing almost essentially indefinitely, even when it’s unclear if they’ll ever see back rent. Pantano says his tenant has stiffed him on rent for three straight years without fear of eviction merely by applying for ERAP.
Meanwhile, the number of active cases is growing, per the tenant-advocacy group Right to Counsel — even though new filings are declining, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Why? Housing Court is unable to handle the existing caseload due to the inadequate number of judges, limited hybrid-work operation and new post-pandemic procedural requirements.
From April 2020 through May 2022, with the moratorium in place, the city saw barely any evictions. Since its expiration on Jan. 15, residential evictions have run between 200 and 300 a month. The average duration of May’s 286 cases — from the date they were filed to the date of eviction — was 19.5 months, with less than half (45%) related to nonpayment. In 16 of the nonpayment cases, tenants were eventually evicted because they weren’t able to satisfy rent arrears, despite total aid of $373,500 from ERAP and other sources.
The average arrears when these cases were filed was $10,085; the average amount owed at the time of the eviction? More than three times that figure: $33,695.
Despite the enormous economic harm — and a backlog in which cases are still aging even more — lawmakers have no plan or urgency to prioritize the crisis. Again, this hurts tenants as well as landlords.
The court system should immediately reassign judges, personnel and space to tackle the backlog until Albany can act on a long-term plan to permanently boost Housing Court’s resources. Albany must put politics aside and meet its responsibility of ensuring that all courts, including Housing Court, are reliable, effective and efficient for plaintiffs and defendants alike.
Fixing the system will require a collaborative effort by lawmakers, the Office of Court Administration, property owners, renters and landlord-tenant attorneys if Albany truly wants to keep tenants in their homes.
Joseph Strasburg is president of the Rent Stabilization Association, consisting of 25,000 diverse owners of over 1 million apartments in the city. Olga Someras is RSA’s general counsel.