Even as New York celebrates a summer reopened, the city’s housing court, by and large, is still operating with pandemic guardrails. A moratorium on evictions will stand for at least seven more weeks, and hearings continue to be held virtually.
Yet the court recently repealed allowances that made it easier for tenants to sue their landlords during the pandemic.
As a result, an online filing tool built to help tenants access courts has been rendered inoperable. JustFix, the nonprofit that developed the tool, sees the court’s move as an attempt to stymie tenant suits ahead of a wave of eviction filings expected when the state’s moratorium expires Aug. 31.
When the pandemic hit last spring, JustFix and the housing court were on the same page. The two cooperated to develop the first e-filing system for tenants seeking to initiate an HP action — a case against a landlord over unaddressed repairs or harassment. The courts agreed to waive notary requirements as well as the usual $45 filing fee during the pandemic, paving the way for JustFix to build a one-stop shop for tenants to file online.
But in late May, the court reversed course. JustFix received an email that those pre-pandemic requirements would be reinstated. The tool, which had opened up access to tenants with ability, immunity, work or childcare restrictions, was rendered inoperable.
Now, with Covid cases rising again in New York, renters with ability, immunity, work or child care considerations will need to print their petition and sign it in the presence of a notary; a law allowing e-notarization ended when Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the state of emergency.
Renters will also once again have to pay the $45 fee. An income-based waiver can be requested, but that also requires notarization. And the fee and petition would need to be submitted either in person or through the court’s e-filing system — built out for housing court during the pandemic, and far from intuitive.
“I was a housing supervisor teaching people how to use NYSCEF,” said JustFix deputy director Stephanie Rudolph. “Most attorneys can’t do it the first few times they try.”
In response to the change, JustFix drafted a letter, co-signed by tenant groups and three state Assembly members, asking the court’s chief judge, Lawrence Marks, to reinstate the waivers and ensure that the city’s most vulnerable tenants have equal access to housing court.
It’s been over a week, and Rudolph said JustFix has received no response.
When The Real Deal reached out for comment, a court spokesperson denied that the JustFix HP Action Tool was inoperative.
“We continue to receive papers prepared by the tool electronically, as we have since the start of the pandemic,” Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state court system, wrote in an email.
But JustFix’s site no longer has an option to use the HP Action Tool, instead directing tenants to a Google Form through which they can request a legal referral. Rudolph said it’s possible a few suits went through in June via a loophole on the site’s back end, which the nonprofit has since closed.
“Now there is absolutely no way to have your petition accepted,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph added that JustFix has identified no legal authority for the requirements. The courts have colored the decision as a return to normal now that the state of emergency is over and they’re fully staffed.
Chalfen said the courts sent a proposition to Albany requesting that notarization requirements for HP Actions be permanently eliminated; he did not return a request for comment when asked to provide a copy of the proposition.
As a matter of opinion, Rudolph thinks the decision is a preventative measure to curb tenant-filed cases ahead of an anticipated wave of eviction filings beginning in September.
Rudolph said HP Actions have been on the rise during the pandemic, pointing to borough courts that added extra judges to handle the heavier case load.
“The courts are extremely backlogged,” Rudolph said. “They have limited resources to deal with the evictions and I think that this is a practical decision to stem the tide of HP filings.”