Housing Court in a Nutshell

by Michael V. Vollono, Esq.

Everyone agrees that housing is one of the most basic human needs. Perhaps this is why some of the hardest fought and most emotional battles occur in housing court. Tenants need places to live and landlords need rental income. It is the role of Housing Court to balance these competing interests. Those who go through the process, both tenants and landlords, sometimes wonder if that balance is tipped more in the other’s favor. You be the judge.


An eviction action is instituted by a landlord with the issuance of a notice to quit. This gives the tenant five days to vacate the premises. It is extremely important to do it correctly since any defect can result in the dismissal of the action. That means the landlord starts over again.


Despite its name, the notice to quit does not require the tenant to vacate. It is a warning shot. If the tenant remains, as almost always happens, the landlord can then commence the actual eviction action by serving the complaint on the tenants. The complaint sets forth the allegations which form the legal basis for the action, such as non-payment of rent or expiration of the lease term.


The tenant then responds by filing an answer and asserting their defenses. These might include claims like defective premises or failure to obtain a certificate of apartment occupancy. It is this area which is sometimes abused by tenants who do not have valid defenses but claim them anyway as this slows down the process.


After the answer is filed, a trial date is scheduled in the Housing Court. In most instances, the cases are settled with the assistance of Housing Specialists who mediate the dispute for the court. Typically, the settlement will require the tenant to vacate within several weeks. If the case is not settled, it is set for trial and it is then up to the Judge. At that point, anything can happen.


The whole process can take months and this is a source of great frustration to landlords who are not getting rent. As in most cases, there are two sides to the story and most tenants will tell you that the system is slanted in favor of landlords. What do you think?


If you are like most people and want to avoid the whole thing, there are steps you can take. The most important thing you can do is talk to each other. A landlord who is having problems with a tenant or a tenant that cannot pay rent will often find that they can work out a mutually agreeable solution if they communicate. A written lease can help even if it is for a month to month period. A lease sets forth the agreement of the parties so that there is no misunderstanding at a later time. However, if all else fails, you always have the right to go to court to air your grievances.


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