Why landlords kept unpaid rent plan secret from tenant groups

CHIP went solo when it pitched an alternative to housing court

Landlords Pitch Unpaid Rent Plan, but Without Tenant Groups

From left: CHIP’s Jay Martin and Legal Aid’s Ellen Davidson (Getty, CHIP, Legal Aid)

As an alternative to the madness of housing court, a landlord group pitched a mediation program on Monday and called for tenant advocates to support it, rather than consult with them in advance.

That was no accident.

The Community Housing Improvement Program felt burned the last time it shared an idea with the Legal Aid Society of New York City and Housing Justice For All.

“We had conversations that we thought were going well,” CHIP’s Jay Martin said. But when state legislators introduced the resulting bill, which aimed to increase rents of dilapidated vacant apartments enough to fund repairs, tenant groups falsely claimed it would remove 500,000 units from rent regulation and put New Yorkers on the street.

“I didn’t expect them to say that,” Martin said in a phone interview.

This time, CHIP pitched a voluntary “eviction diversion program” based on others in Philadelphia, Maryland, Indiana, Hawaii and New Jersey. It would allow tenants who fall behind on rent to go to mediation — if the landlord agrees — rather than housing court, which has been bogged down by a huge case backlog since the pandemic.

The premise is that the vast majority of eviction filings are for unpaid rent and call for a financial planner to craft a payment plan, not a judge to resolve complicated legal issues. From January through October, about 84 percent of the 106,000 eviction filings in New York City were for nonpayment, according to CHIP. Just under 10,000 evictions were carried out during that time.

Mediation would allow the two sides to work something out without the expense, delays and dysfunction of housing court. Both sides would benefit, Martin argued.

But Ami Shah, deputy director of housing at Legal Services NYC, said in a statement, “Eviction cases are hardly ever only about money and a certified financial planner cannot safeguard tenants against bad acting landlords failing to hold up their end of the bargain, such as landlords who illegally overcharge tenants, refuse to acknowledge a building’s regulatory status, or neglect buildings and fail to provide essential services or make repairs.”

Also, housing court’s dysfunction helps tenants because they can drag out cases for years without paying rent. Tenants’ lawyers also get paid by the city and state’s right-to-counsel programs, while landlords have to pay their own legal bills — typically $1,000 or $2,000 for a basic nonpayment case, Martin said.

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Predictably, Legal Aid, Housing Justice for All and other tenant representatives oppose CHIP’s proposal. The Right to Counsel Coalition said in a statement that mediation would undermine tenants’ right to free legal services when facing eviction.

“Putting in place a mediation program in NYC, where tenants already have the right to an attorney, does not make sense,” the statement said. “With mediation, landlords would still be represented by their attorneys and tenants would enter the ‘mediation’ without an experienced and knowledgeable tenant rights attorney, perpetuating a very large power imbalance.”

The tenant group even characterized CHIP’s press release as “publicly lamenting a low eviction rate.” It dismissed the safeguards CHIP proposed, including that the tenant would first meet with a financial adviser and could then opt out of mediation and go to housing court.

The opposition makes it unlikely that state lawmakers would set up a mediation program. Legislators rely on tenant activist groups for information, even if it is untrue, Martin said. “The questions we get [from lawmakers about proposals] are always, Did you check with these groups?”

In this case, CHIP’s answer will be no, because it said that strategy backfired with the vacant-unit bill. Tenant groups got some legislators to drop their sponsorship of the measure.

But CHIP also knew that tenant groups have long opposed mediation as a housing court alternative.

Martin said about 80,000 or 90,000 of the city’s approximately 900,000 rent-stabilized tenants fall four to six months behind on payments every three to five years, bogging down housing court with cases that are typically resolved by the city’s one-shot deals or other aid.

“It seems a tremendous waste of time and money to keep going through the same process,” Martin said.

Diverting those cases to mediation would free up the court to focus on those involving building violations, nuisance tenants or other complicated matters, he said.

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