So You Think You Know About Housing...

Housing Education: A Baptism by Fire

This week has been an eventful and educational one regarding housing issues here in Kingston and the laws (or rather, lack of laws) that govern tenants and landlords. On Monday, members of Rise Up Kingston accompanied Helen Hillje to her appointment at small claims court on Garraghan Drive. For those of you who have been following our #KingstonDidYouKnow campaign, you know that Helen is a city resident who has been battling for housing justice for the last six months.

When her pipes froze this winter, it was only after repeated calls to the Building Safety Department and the Department of Health that her landlord attempted to fix them-the apartment was forced to be “Posted” before he would do anything about the frozen pipes that left Helen -a single mother of 5- without hot water for a week. She was then housed in a DSS motel in Highland for the time it took to unfreeze the pipes, during which time the landlord ran space heaters continuously on Helen's utility bill- a tactic that left her with a monthly electric bill that was more than doubled. Helen's time in Highland was also costly; driving 22 miles back and forth daily to bring her children to school, daycare and herself to work, as well as the added cost of meals that can be prepared or eaten in a hotel room. She was not reimbursed for any of these costs; not for the electricity bill, the gas, the food-none of it. In an effort to get some economic (if not housing) justice, Helen filed a claim in small claims court. Her hearing was scheduled for Monday.

We arrived to a small crisis in progress; Helen was being told that she would not be allowed to proceed into the courtroom with her 18 month old child. When we arrived, we were escorted into a small conference room to review the details of her case and talk about what was going to happen-and also to “figure out who was going to watch her child”. When we questioned this policy, the guard replied that her son would not be allowed to be present in the courtroom if he was disruptive at all-at this point we all looked at Helen's son (who at this point had not even breathed loudly) and said that he was not being disruptive. The guard replied that that “would be up to the Judge to decide” to which we replied, “OK”. The guard, clearly frustrated by our insistence that Helen be allowed to bring her child with her but having no further authority to insist otherwise, sighed and let the matter go. Helen did bring her baby in with her, and he was not disruptive or asked to leave.

We at Rise Up are left to wonder though, if we had not been there to question the policy and insist that Helen be allowed to pursue justice for herself-would that have gone differently? Would she have been turned away? Would the court date have been rescheduled, or would she have forfeited? There are times when a single mother has great difficulty finding safe or affordable childcare for appointments, and if the court wishes to enforce a no-children policy, should they not then provide a place for children to go for folks who have to bring theirs with them? This is about ensuring equal access to justice under the law-and policies like the one we witnessed have a discriminatory effect.

The next rude awakening came when the guard came back to ask about witnesses. He told us that anyone who would be serving as a witness in the case would not be allowed to come into the courtroom. When we asked for clarification, we learned that this court date was essentially the full “trial” as far as Helen was concerned. This wasn't mentioned in any of the paperwork she filed, nor had anyone told Helen this would be the case. Lawyers are not usually retained for small claims court, either, as it is considered “the people's court”. Now feeling rather unprepared, we went into the court and ultimately, Helen decided to withdraw her claim and re-file an amended claim, as she had not filed for the full amount of costs she believes she is entitled to. 

The second phase of housing education this week came a few days later. Helen went to court on Monday, and on Tuesday evening was served a 3-day notice to “quit” from her landlord. On Wednesday morning Rise Up Kingston learned this and I accompanied her to legal aid that afternoon to figure out the next steps. We sat down with Helen's attorney, and while I cannot divulge the details of a private attorney-client session as it relates to Helen's case specifically, we did learn a lot about housing law in general that was both illuminating and frustrating that I can share.

Did you know, for instance; that if you have a month-to-month rental agreement with your landlord-you are almost entirely unprotected by the law as it relates to your tenancy? Did you know, that even with a lease, unless that lease specifically places requirements upon the landlord in regard to habitability, there is still no legal mandate for the landlord to maintain your dwelling to any particular standard?

If you live in a private rental apartment or house, there aren't laws that require your landlord to maintain the property to a particular standard of living. If you have leaky ceilings, mold, pest infestation, etc. your options are to a)move or b) withhold rent. Withholding rent is a tricky and often unfavorable strategy to try and play, because the most rent a Judge will ever allow you to withhold is three-quarters, and it is calculated by usable square footage of the apartment or house. The example the lawyer gave is this: If your apartment is 1000 square feet, and it has four rooms 250 sq ft each, and the roof is missing off of one of the rooms, the most the Judge will take off your rent is one quarter-because you can use the other three quarters of the apartment. You also must continue to pay rent until you receive such an allowance from a Judge, or risk being evicted for non-payment.

If there are conditions that are unsafe, a Judge is most likely to simply order you to leave immediately for your safety, rather than order the landlord to remedy the problem. A call to the Building Safety department can sometimes (but not always) help...they have the authority to “post” the apartment, and require the landlord to fix the issue at hand-like when Helen was without hot water this past winter. But the other conditions were given a 30-day period to fix. Building safety can fine the landlord for non-compliance, but it is up to them to do so. They can also (and did, multiple times) extend the deadline to comply with the order to make repairs, and then you face the threat of retaliation from the landlord.

When it comes to Section 8, there isn't any more protection. Repeated calls to her caseworker about conditions in the apartment were met with an instruction to “move”. Helen has 5 children and needs a four bedroom apartment-one that takes Section 8 vouchers and falls within the budget she is allowed to spend on housing. The market is squeezed tight like a rubber band right now, and those are hard to come by. So is the cost of the security deposit and last months rent, which most landlords require and RUPCO does not generally cover...and that most single mothers on Section 8 do not have at their ready disposal.

Helen was finally able to get RUPCO to inspect the apartment (spoiler alert: it failed) and stop payment. However, Helen (nor RUPCO) doesn't have access to that money-it gets paid directly from NYS to the landlord with no stops in between. This means that she is not able to save that money toward the next place. Yet another stone laid upon this pile of iniquity and struggle is that there are time limits on how quickly you must use a voucher or lose it. Initially, you have a set amount of time to find a place-if you cannot find one, you lose your Section 8 voucher and it goes to the next person on the list. There is a similar time constraint when it is time to find a new place. In Helen's case, the “clock” starts ticking on that limit once RUPCO stops paying the delinquent landlord.

To summarize this all neatly:

Helen and her kids have been living in a house that was without a working toilet for 5 months, that has been infested with mice, that has mold rotting the counter tops and blackening towels under the sink.

She has lost many pieces of furniture to the conditions and she keeps most of her personal items in bags to keep them safe from mold and mice.

She is facing possible eviction at some point in the coming months.

Because RUPCO stopped payment to the landlords, she has to move within 60 days or risk losing her Section 8 voucher.

She has no way to recover the rent that is not being paid on her behalf to save the $3000+ for security/last month and movers.

AND IT IS ALL LEGAL.

#HousingJusticeNow #RiseUpKingston #KingstonDidYouKnow

Until the next episode, 

Cassandra Burke