Housing Law Made Simple
Last summer, I was given a pro bono assignment addressing a housing issue with a lot of wrinkles. Without going into any confidential details, the City of New York was proceeding to evict the residents of a housing development for eminent domain purposes. The City, pursuant to an administrative rule, promised to provide the residents with moving expenses and to help them find comparable accommodations. Time had passed, and the City had not followed through on its promises and the residents were faced with the prospect of homelessness. Initially, we were dealing with the complex eviction issues, but our assignment was complicated by the fact that each tenant, for different reasons, seemed to have different eligibility levels for the promised services. It was further complicated by the fact that we had no idea which law applied—New York State law or the myriad of rules and regulations imposed by the City itself.
Even though the firm’s resources would have paid for a Westlaw search, I had no idea where to start. Because it was a pro bono assignment, I, a clueless summer associate, was the first set of eyes on the problem. Also because it was a pro bono assignment, I was afraid of how much I would cost the firm while spinning my wheels. Unsure of which court system to search (supreme court? city court? housing court?), or for that matter, whether there would be any cases on point, I turned to Google first. My Google search pointed me to some great free sites that ultimately answered our questions for us.
Trying to figure out which set of rules would apply, I looked for a database of the Rules of the City of New York. I found a great site that allows searching through the Rules (http://126.96.36.199/nyc/rcny/entered.htm). On the upper left-hand corner of the page, there is a “search” button that brings you to a page where you can search for words and phrases. The page includes a list of Boolean operators that the site recognizes, and a way to limit the search to different documents. This type of searching assumes that you know which terms to search, but just in case you do not, there is a table of contents for the rules on the left side of the page. The rules are divided by title number and heading, and you can expand each section to read the different sub-headings. When I first came to this site, I searched for “eviction” within the Rules of New York. This generated several results, most of them within Title 28. I then went to the table of contents and selected Title 28, reading through the subheadings. It was while perusing these headings that I found something of interest: “Chapter 18: Relocation Payments and Services.” I never would have thought to search for these terms, but upon seeing the section within the rules, I knew that this was applicable to our case.
Another site that I found through a simple Google search was the website for the New York City Housing Court (http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/nyc/housing/index.shtml). We’ve discussed in class how going directly to a court website can be helpful, and this was incredibly clear to me last summer. This website seems to be geared toward litigants who do not have access to an attorney and might have to engage in some self-help. On the left side of the page, there is a link for “Legal Information.” This brings up a list of different issues that are of interest to someone going to the City Housing Court. I clicked on “holdover proceedings,” the type of proceeding with which we were dealing, which brought me to a page with a lot of valuable information. Specifically, it broke down what goes into an order to show cause, how to answer a case, how to stop an eviction, and the effect of a judgment. It also explained some of the substantive areas of law, in particular RPAPL 375, which shows what is needed to effect service of process. This site also has links to court-produced publications and videos on a variety of subjects, including “How to Prepare for a Landlord-Tenant Trial” and “How to Try or Defend a Civil Case When You Don’t Have a Lawyer.” Because things move very quickly in housing court, this page was great in terms of helping our clients. We were able to come up with some stopgap measures that would help them in the meantime, while we tried to address their larger concerns.
After class this week, I decided to give the research guides we discussed a try, to see if one of them would have been helpful had I known about it last summer. I went to the Cornell Law Library site and clicked on “Research Guides.” I didn’t see anything pertaining to housing, so I searched the Legal Research Engine “I want it all” option, which searches legal research guides, the legal Internet, and academic blawgs. After entering “NY Housing Law,” the search produced a number of helpful sources. Among them, a chapter on Housing Law produced by the Sadin Institute on Law & Public Policy. This document provides a detailed summary of the different levels (federal, state, city) of housing laws, and thorough descriptions of eviction procedures. I then searched for “NY landlord tenant,” and found a source that I will be book-marking for future use. It’s a comprehensive guide to Landlord-Tenant law in New York State, discussing the applicable laws and different proceedings. As I’m hoping to continue to do a lot of pro bono work in the future, it’s great to know that this stuff is out there, and that the Cornell Library website makes searching for it so simple.