NYC Housing Rights Advocates Oppose Recent Housing Court Decision on Filing Virtual HP Actions
On Monday, June 28, 2021, housing organizers, advocates, legal service providers, elected officials, and key stakeholders, along with JustFix, sent a letter to Judge Lawrence K. Marks, Chief Administrative Judge of New York City Housing Court, denouncing the Court’s recent decision to block tenant HP Actions filed virtually through JustFix’s website (known as the HP Action Tool).
Up until March 2020, tenants facing bad conditions in their homes or harassment from their landlords filed HP Actions physically in Housing Court. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, JustFix collaborated with the New York City Housing Court to create the first online tool for filing an HP Action. Using the JustFix tool, tenants could file online in about 20–30 minutes without the need for printing and notary services. Online filing created unprecedented access to the Courts for some of New York’s most under-resourced renters, with more than 3,100 pro se litigants filing through JustFix’s tool.
In early June 2021, the Housing Court began rejecting JustFix online filings. By reinstating a $45.00 filing fee that the Court had waived throughout the pandemic as well as requiring that each lawsuit be “verified” (i.e. notarized), the Court rendered JustFix’s tool inoperable. Exacerbating the confusion, Court clerks routinely failed to inform tenants, often emailing only JustFix’s email address.
The Court’s sudden decision — made without consulting key stakeholders or even a public announcement — demonstrates a blatant disregard for the needs of the most under-resourced New York City renters. For the first time in 14 months, tenants facing extreme landlord harassment and a lack of basic services now must visit a partially-staffed Housing Court in person. These changes restrict access to the Courts for all renters, but this decision particularly leaves behind low-income tenants of color, as well as homebound, immunocompromised, elderly, and disabled New Yorkers. While pandemic-related eviction protections extend through at least August 31, 2021, unrepresented tenants with dangerous housing conditions are among the only litigants forced to visit Housing Court in person.
Prior to the pandemic, Housing Court had no online filing system at all. JustFix’s HP Action tool, built alongside the court system, represented the first e-filing option for Housing Court. During the course of the pandemic, the New York City Housing Court eventually integrated into the New York State Electronic Filing System (“NYSCEF”). Nevertheless, NYSCEF remains inaccessible to the vast majority of unrepresented tenants. Designed for attorneys, NYSCEF filings often take several days to process and prove inaccessible to pro se litigants. Without JustFix’s tool, tenants have no choice but to visit Housing Court to file an HP Action.
Below is the letter submitted to Judge Marks on June 28, 2021 regarding the Court’s decision:
Dear Judge Marks:
JustFix and its undersigned partners write to express our vehement objection to the abrupt discontinuance of the HP Action Tool. Discontinuing this important avenue for tenants to advocate for their right to a safe and habitable apartment represents an unnecessary, harmful and reckless setback for NYC’s tenants.
JustFix co-creates tools with tenants, organizers, and legal advocates to fight displacement and achieve stable, healthy housing for all.
In keeping with its mission, when the Housing Court closed its doors due to COVID-19 in March 2020, JustFix collaborated with its partner organizations and the Court to expeditiously develop and launch an online tool that enabled New Yorkers across the City to vindicate their right to a safe and habitable apartment.
In an unprecedented move to protect the civil rights of renters, the Courts eased the filing process by waiving the $45.00 filing fee for all and eliminating the need to notarize the petition (i.e. lawsuit). In less than an hour, a New Yorker without heat or hot water could file an HP for free with nothing more than a smartphone or Wifi connection. Since the tool’s launch, over 3,000 New York City renters have filed cases through JustFix.
Housing Court Clears its Docket to Prepare for Evictions
At the end of May 2021, the Court abruptly informed JustFix that it would immediately reject HP Actions filed through JustFix’s existing tool, failing to announce or inform the public of these changes. Without notice, the Court revoked the waiver of the $45.00 filing fee and reinstated the requirement that all petitions be notarized. As a result, court clerks began rejecting filings from JustFix users facing emergencies such as extreme harassment, lack of basic services, and lead paint.
The Court rendered this decision unilaterally and without consultation or warning, and failed to inform tenants or their advocates in any way. Renters now have no choice but to attempt to file HPs in person with no guarantee that the Court — not fully open to the public — will process their cases. Worst of all, those with compromised immunity, the elderly, and those with mobility issues are now completely cut off from filing HPs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic inequality and exacerbated the housing and homeless crises. The Court’s sudden reinstatement of pre-COVID rules not only represents an enormous step back in providing universal access to justice but also displays a contempt towards New York renters, particularly low-income households of color.
While New York City businesses have begun to open, Courts lag far behind these establishments. In recognition of the ongoing crisis, New York State imposed expansive eviction protections until August 31, 2021, keeping litigants and their counsel out of Housing Court for three more months. Yet, New Yorkers facing emergency conditions have no choice but to visit a partially open, only semi-functional court with no guarantee that the staff will have the resources to process their HP Actions.
This fight isn’t about JustFix’s tool. This fight is about the civil rights of New York City’s most marginalized communities. While JustFix’s tool may have proved a temporary solution to an unprecedented crisis, we condemn the Court’s unilateral decision to close the channel to those seeking to vindicate their most basic rights to live free of harassment in a safe and habitable apartment.
During the pandemic, the Housing Court dedicated considerable resources to ensuring safe and habitable housing in New York City for the first time in decades. But, three months before the expiration of New York State’s expansive eviction protections, the Courts have not-so-subtly taken abrupt action to return to the status quo, prioritizing evictions over tenant safety. With a whopping 220,420 eviction cases currently pending in New York City, Housing Court has already reaffirmed its commitment to serving as an eviction machine. We demand better.
Specifically, we immediately demand that:
- The Court reinstate the filing fee waiver for all New York City tenants.
- The Court reinstate its policy of waiving the requirement that HP Petitions be notarized.
- The Court must afford legal service providers, housing advocates, tenant leaders, JustFix and other stakeholders the opportunity and time to provide meaningful feedback prior to making any future changes to the filing requirements for HP Actions.
We request an immediate meeting between the Court (Chief Judges & Chief Clerk in each borough) and key stakeholders, including legal services providers, housing advocates, tenant leaders, and JustFix to discuss ensuring equal and expeditious access to HP filings.
Georges Clement, Executive Director of JustFix, with the Support of the Following:
ALAA, UAW Local 2325
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, NY District 74
Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, NY District 51
Assemblymember Zohran Kwame Mamdani, NY District 36
Bronx Defenders (Runa Rajagopal Managing Director, Civil Action Practice)
Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A (Jessica A. Rose, Esq., Executive Director)
CAMBA Legal Services
CASA- New Settlement
Catholic Migration Services
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, District 6
Crown Heights Tenant Union
Flatbush Tenant Coalition
Goddard Riverside/SRO Law Project
H.O.P.E (Housing Organizers for People Empowerment)
Housing Conservation Coordinators (Leslie Thrope, Executive Director)
Legal Services NYC (“LSNY”)
Lenox Hill Neighborhood House
Met Council on Housing
Mobilization for Justice
Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem
New York Legal Assistance Group (“NYLAG”)
Nobody Leaves Mid Hudson
Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (“NMIC”)
Pro Bono Net
Right to Counsel Coalition NYC
Urban Justice Center- Safety Net Project