A recent report sheds critical light on the problems faced by New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) tenants in housing court eviction proceedings. As the report details, thousands of public housing units are now privately managed, and tenants living in those units are evicted at alarmingly high rates through housing court.
New York is making strides in tenants’ rights through the passage of new rent laws, but these steps forward leave many NYCHA tenants behind. In Manhattan, NYCHA tenants are evicted at a higher rate than other tenants in housing court.
One issue the report fails to address, however, is that these unjust rates are compounded by a two-tiered eviction system faced only by NYCHA residents. In addition to the more formal housing court, NYCHA tenants being evicted for any reason other than nonpayment of rent are forced to first navigate "administrative hearings" which are not necessarily captured in the housing court data. During these hearings, clients are subject to a bewildering process where the rules are made up and tenant rights do not matter.
There is no good eviction. Evictions wreak havoc on my clients’ lives, and housing court proceedings are inherently inequitable. However, in NYCHA administrative hearings, the fear and stress that accompanies risk of eviction are exacerbated by a total lack of predictability that makes it difficult for residents and their attorneys to truly prepare a meaningful defense and exercise their due process rights. In short, it is a rigged game.
NYCHA administrative hearings are largely devoid of meaningful procedure. Hearsay evidence is admissible. NYCHA attorneys are permitted to amend their charges freely and as many times as they want. These amendments can include anything from correcting incorrect facts at the beginning of the hearing, to adding new, unrelated charges midway through the hearing, even after NYCHA has supposedly rested its case.
Tenants may receive default judgments after they do not appear, even if NYCHA knows they are incarcerated and has taken no steps to produce them. Even though some NYCHA tenants receive counsel during administrative proceedings through the new Universal Access to Counsel program – meant to guarantee all residents representation when facing eviction – they do so at a lower percentage than tenants going through housing court.
This unequal system leads to gross miscarriages of justice. Imagine: a public housing tenant in Harlem receives a letter from NYCHA notifying her that it wants to evict her because her grandson was arrested on a marijuana charge. She is afraid. Affordable housing in New York City is scarce, and she grew up in this apartment that she now shares with her family. After a long subway ride and a long walk, she arrives at 803 Atlantic Ave. for her hearing. She believes that she is there to discuss her grandson’s arrest, and has worked with her attorney to prepare herself against this charge.
During the hearing, NYCHA attorneys submit documents that lodge false accusations, but tenant’s attorneys are not given the opportunity to cross-examine those making the statements and expose untruths. Midway through the hearing, the rug is pulled out from under her: the NYCHA attorney is no longer interested in discussing the arrest and amends the charges. Now, without notice, the tenant finds herself in a hearing regarding whether or not an unauthorized occupant is living in the apartment.
This trial-by-ambush is wholly inequitable, but lawful under NYCHA’s loose procedural rules. The tenant has been set up to fail.
The procedural deficiencies of these administrative hearings have grave consequences for public housing tenants who, once evicted from NYCHA housing, are unlikely to ever get back in. They also threaten our neighborhoods: from Harlem to Crown Heights, Astoria to Fordham Heights, attacks on public housing are weakening neighborhoods and fueling gentrification.
Technically, NYCHA tenants have the same procedural rights as tenants in private housing, but administrative hearings often render those rights meaningless. This must change.
Luft is an attorney at Neighborhood Defender Service.