Landlord lawyers talk protest over eviction confusion

Mull writing letters, suing or demonstrating at Barclays Center

(iStock)
(iStock)

While tenants protested the reopening of Housing Court Monday, incensed landlord attorneys plotted actions against the city and state for not doing enough to allow evictions.

Some 100 attorneys from the Brooklyn Housing Court Bar Association convened to discuss the conflicting guidance given ahead of the scheduled reopening of Housing Court. But the tone quickly escalated to frustration. Some attorneys suggested that the court was not on the same page as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ordered that some evictions proceed starting Monday.

“Judge Marks doesn’t have the right to supersede Cuomo in deciding he can stay evictions,” said one attorney on the call. “Cuomo says we can start evictions — we’re all going to be out of business otherwise.”

To voice their dissatisfaction, one attorney suggested “kicking Mayor de Blasio’s door in,” while others made plans to write an amicus brief in support of a Westchester lawsuit claiming Cuomo’s eviction order was unconstitutional.

Attorneys even discussed staging a “landlord protest” at Barclays Center — a scene of recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations — aimed at highlighting the plight of landlords unable to collect rent during the pandemic but temporarily to evict tenants for that reason.

Landlord attorneys can now file eviction cases by mail, but questions remain about how those could proceed. An earlier court order halted all evictions in the state, but that was superseded by Cuomo’s May executive order allowing evictions to proceed in some cases. That edict was called into question last week when New York City’s top Housing Court judge, Jean Schneider, told attorneys the original court order halting evictions still applied until further notice — a date currently set at July 6.

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The day after Schneider’s comments, the court issued additional guidance on eviction proceedings. The memo confounded landlord and tenant attorneys alike, who called it confusing and poorly drafted.

While landlords mulled plans for their own protests, tenants took to the streets to decry the reopening of housing courts in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Hempstead, Buffalo, Albany, Rochester and Binghamton. Legal assistance providers, affordable housing advocates and progressive groups said it could lead to the immediate filing of as many as 50,000 eviction cases.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore seemed to address those concerns in a recorded message released Monday, although it alluded to the coronavirus risk from crowded courthouses, not from evictions.

“In our housing courts, we know and understand that we must be careful to avoid any adverse public health consequences that could come with a sudden influx of cases involving crowds of unrepresented tenants appearing personally in our buildings,” DiFiore said. She added that “the proceeding will be stayed until further notice, consistent with the governor’s executive orders that are still in place.”

Adding to the uncertainty over evictions, a bill that would put eviction warrants on hold is still sitting on Cuomo’s desk, as of yet unsigned. The bill, dubbed the “Tenant Safe Harbor Act,” was sent to the governor Thursday.