As with all legal matters, there are times when it’s worthwhile to escalate a situation to court and times when it may be more worthwhile to simply seek out a new living arrangement and move on. When it comes to suing a landlord, there are two major considerations that push renters away from bringing their cases to court—but there are many other reasons why hiring a lawyer and addressing your issue legally is worth the risks.
The tenant blacklist
The fear of ending up on a tenant “blacklist” is one reason why many might opt to go out quietly—even if they have a legitimate case of harassment or discrimination. The blacklist, a database of suits shared between landlords and brokers, could stand in the way of anyone looking to secure safe, affordable housing after an appearance in housing court.
The tenant blacklist is no myth, especially in competitive housing markets like New York City, where landlords and long-time tenants are frequently at odds. The Metropolitan Council on Housing, a New York City-based tenants-rights nonprofit, explains the process behind the blacklist in a 2011 article on the organization’s efforts (and those of the lawyers working alongside it) to stop this practice:
“For a fee, the state court system will provide daily updates on cases that have been filed in Housing Court. Tenant-screening companies use that data to produce reports about individual tenants, with each company creating its own database. Landlords and brokers routinely purchase these reports when evaluating applicants for new apartments. When tenants show up as having appeared as defendants in Housing Court, they are generally denied the apartment, no matter what the circumstances were.”
While nonprofits like Metropolitan Council on Housing are pushing back on these policies, the tenant blacklist still exists, and official channels to remove your name from its ranks still do not.
Worries over legal costs
The other major deterrent from taking your landlord to court is the cost. Appearing in court requires an investment of your time and money, and many people cannot afford to sacrifice either. For some, it might ultimately cost more money to pay for a case to go to court than they stand to receive if they win.
Fortunately, some states are making progress on affordability in housing court cases; in August of 2017, Mayor DeBlasio of New York City signed a law guaranteeing legal representation for low-income residents facing eviction. Before the law was passed, landlords disproportionately arrived at housing court with counsel compared to the tenants they were fighting.
“The act could transform housing court in New York, where landlords appear with counsel in more than 90 percent of cases,” reported CityLab in 2017. “Until 2014, tenants were represented in just 1 to 10 percent of cases”
You can access these resources through the New York City Bar, the New York City Housing Court’s website, or through the New York City Office of Housing Preservation and Development.
Resources are also available to renters struggling to afford representation outside of New York. You can search for local tenants’ rights and housing nonprofits in your area, or through services from the legal aid societies in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, to name only a few.
Having addressed two reasons why you might choose to stay out of court, there are nonetheless several circumstances in which suing your landlord is not only well within your rights, it’s in your best interest.
If you feel you’ve been discriminated against by your landlord—whether by his refusal to rent to you based on your race, gender, sexuality, or religion, or his harassment of you based on those same grounds—then you may have a solid case against your landlord.
While it might seem that discrimination would be easy to spot, the Fair Housing Center of Southeast and Mid Michigan warns that “Housing discrimination often comes with “a smile and a handshake.” While commonly experienced, discrimination can be subtle, friendly, and often difficult to pin down.” The center lists the following as subtle, but actionable, signs of discrimination:
- Housing advertisements that say “no kids” or “adults only”
- A refusal to make a reasonable accommodation or allow a modification to make the dwelling accessible for a person with a disability
- Offering non‐standard and unfavorable terms in the purchase of a home or property insurance
- Terms of availability that change between a phone contact and an in‐person visit
- Being steered to racially segregated neighborhoods during your home search
- Excessive or inappropriate questioning upon requesting information about a dwelling
If your apartment or home puts your health or safety at risk, like in cases of a rat or pest infestation or the presence of toxic mold, then it qualifies as an unlivable arrangement. A judge may be needed to order your landlord to repair and amend the situation.
Lack of response
When your landlord stops responding, refuses to give back your security deposit without valid reasoning, or if you’ve paid for a repair yourself and aren’t being reimbursed, you can bring your landlord to civil or small claims court.
All tenants have a right to privacy, and if yours is being intruded upon by your landlord, then you may have grounds to sue. Landlords cannot enter the tenant’s rented unit without a 24-hour written or verbal notice. However, if it is an emergency situation, it isn’t necessary for the landlord to provide any notice to the tenant.