Housing Quality Law Underenforced in New York City Housing Court

A study in the Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law, The Limits of Good Law: A Study of Housing Court Outcomes,” finds that few renters in New York City eviction cases are able to make use of a legal provision that authorizes rent abatements for substandard housing conditions. Only 3.29% of tenants who had meritorious claims of housing quality violations received rent abatement, and they were not likely to receive any other benefits. Among tenants with meritorious claims who had legal representation, 27% received rent abatement.

A “warranty of habitability” requires landlords to keep units in a safe and livable condition. In New York City, tenants can use the warranty of habitability as a reason for non-payment of rent if their unit requires repairs. If a judge determines that the rental home is not safe and livable, renters may be eligible to receive rent abatement. Previous scholarship speculated that renters might be agreeing to trade rent abatement for longer repayment plans or to forestall a final judgment in eviction cases.

The study assesses the rate of rent abatement, the prevalence of benefits like a longer repayment period, and the extent of unit repairs for tenants who have meritorious warranty of habitability claims. Eviction filing data came from the New York Office of Court Administration’s eviction database. Housing code violation data came from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Housing Code enforcement database.

To determine if tenants were eligible for rent abatement due to warranty of habitability violations, the author selected cases in which tenants asserted during eviction proceedings that unit repairs were needed and the judge required substantial repairs in a settlement agreement. In 36% of a sample of eviction filings, both conditions were met. Only 3.29% of tenants in these cases received rent abatement. For tenants in units that also had at least one open, hazardous code violation, this increased to 13%.

The study examined the extent to which tenants with meritorious claims received other benefits, such as a longer period to pay rental arrears or avoiding a possessory judgement (which authorizes a landlord to request law enforcement to evict the tenant). No statistically significant differences in outcomes existed between those with and those without meritorious claims.

The author evaluated whether meritorious claims led to rental repairs. Using data from cases with multiple settlement agreements, the study assessed whether landlords had the same code violations when they returned to court after the first instance. Of this subset of landlords, nearly 75% had not complied with the original repair order.

The author argues these findings demonstrate that, despite its intent, the warranty of habitability does little to protect tenants. While tenants with legal representation were more likely to receive abatement under the law, the overwhelming majority of those with meritorious claims still did not receive any benefits. The author notes that this gap between those with successful claims and those who actually receive benefits warrants additional research in order to identify tenant barriers to receiving benefits under the current law.

The article can be found on pp. 29–56 at: https://bit.ly/3fNtNXx