New York City has officially reinstated its pre-pandemic rules for tenants filing lawsuits against their landlords—and in doing so, has blocked New Yorkers from using a free online tool that made filing housing complaints easier.
Through the website JustFix.nyc, New Yorkers were able to file cases known as Housing Part (HP) Actions for free. An HP Action can be filed when a landlord refuses to provide services or make repairs. The NYC Court originally worked with JustFix to create this tool during the start of the pandemic.
But after a recent decision from the New York City Housing Court, New Yorkers are now required to print and notarize the legal papers before submitting them to the Court Clerk. The $45 filing fee has also been reinstated, and can be paid either in person or through the court’s e-filing system, which is typically used by lawyers.
The JustFix.nyc tool proved to be a popular pandemic solution to the crisis New Yorker City renters faced this past year. Since its launch in April 2020, over 3,000 people have used it to file complaints against their landlords. The recent policy change made the JustFix tool completely inoperable, and it has already been removed from the organization’s website.
“The Court rendered this decision unilaterally and without consultation or warning, and failed to inform tenants or their advocates in any way,” JustFix wrote on Monday, in a letter to Judge Lawrence K. Marks. “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.”
The letter demands that the court waives the fee and the requirement that HP Actions be notarized. It also asks that JustFix and other housing advocates be included in future decisions regarding filing HP Actions.
“The HP process was a very small process of what the housing court did. And for the first time, we got to see a world in which judges had to put much more resources towards HP filings. So I think the idea that we're just going back to how it was before is not acceptable,” Stephanie Rudolph, deputy director for JustFix, told Motherboard.
Rudolph also told Motherboard that the policy change led to approximately 18 to 19 HP Actions being rejected by the Courts because they were filed through the JustFix system before it shut down. Rudolph had to contact and notify them directly because the Housing Court hadn’t done so.
Rudolph added that the onerous requirements for in-person filing also seem to have no basis in law. "We'd be curious to hear response from the courts as to what laws they think forced them to have these requirements in the first place,” they said.
The organization also helps tenants receive their apartment’s rent history and draft letters to their landlords, either declaring hardship to avoid eviction or to request repairs. Their other tool, Who Owns What, allows people to search for their landlord’s other properties.
While landlords are allowed to use surveillance tools against tenants and housing applicants that are often inaccurate, tenants are left with antiquated systems to help protect themselves at home.
For now, tenants can apply for “Poor Persons Relief” to waive the $45 fee and can contact 311 to be connected to a free tenant lawyer for assistance.
When asked for comment, Courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Motherboard, “We are aware of a letter that has been emailed regarding our updating protocols on Housing Part filings. Once we review it, we will give due consideration to any concerns that are addressed.”