Lawyering up for Housing Affordability

The New York City Independent Budget Office issued an estimate of the cost of providing “free legal representation to individuals with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level who are facing eviction and foreclosure proceedings in court . . ..” (1) The IBO nets the cost of this proposal against the potential savings that the City would reap by reducing admissions to homeless shelters. The IBO concludes that this proposal would have a net cost of roughly 100 million to 200 million dollars.

The IBO notes that “there are benefits to reducing evictions that extend beyond the city’s budget, such as the potential for reducing turnovers of rent-regulated apartments, which would slow rent increases for those units, as well as avoiding the long term physical and mental health consequences associated with homelessness.” (1-2)

Seems to me that this is money well spent in 21st century New York City. Market forces are such that landlords can frequently raise rents significantly whenever a tenant leaves.  Unscrupulous landlords harass their tenants in a variety of ways in order to encourage them to leave sooner.  This might be done through the abuse of legal process, with a landlord trying to evict a tenant multiple times when the tenant has not violated the terms of the lease. Or it might be done through improperly maintaining the property, for instance, cutting off the water repeatedly. In either case, though, tenants are being subject to a lot of illegal behavior in this hot real estate market.

Housing court is a mess for both tenants and landlords, but typically only landlords have lawyers to help them navigate it. This proposal would even the field a bit. Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing goals would be greatly augmented by this proposal.

Perhaps housing court reform should also be put on the table so that these cases are adjudicated equitably, but that is a topic for another day . . ..

Settling NY Foreclosures

Three legal services providers issued Stalled Settlement Conferences: A Report on Residential Foreclosure Settlement Conferences in New York City. The report opens,

New York has coped with the foreclosure crisis by implementing a pioneering settlement conference process administered by the court system, designed to promote negotiation of affordable home-saving solutions. These conferences present a remarkable opportunity for lenders and borrowers to meet face-to-face in a court supervised settlement conference at which creative solutions can be forged, and have allowed thousands of New Yorkers to avert foreclosure. But banks routinely flout the law by appearing without required information or settlement authority, causing delays that cost borrowers money and can make home-saving settlements impossible. The process can be far more effective, and less prone to delay, if the courts rigorously enforce the requirements of the settlement conference law, as this report recommends.

Notwithstanding media reports about rebounding real estate markets, New York remains mired in a foreclosure crisis. In fact, in 2013 foreclosure cases represented approximately one third of the judiciary’s civil case load. New York State’s courts experienced a significant increase in foreclosure fi lings during 2013, with the pending inventory increasing more than 16% in 2013, with over 84,000 foreclosure cases pending as of the last report issued by the judiciary, and with 44,035 projected new filings for calendar year 2013 (representing an increase of nearly 20,000 new filings over 2012). (2)

This is clearly an advocacy document, but it is also clear that it is documenting a real problem, one that has cropped up time after time in judicial decisions. It may, however, go too far when it states that “banks and their lawyers themselves are largely responsible for prolonging the process.” (3) In fact, NY’s foreclosure process was longer than most before the mandatory conferences were implemented and remain long even as other jurisdictions adopt similar requirements.

Nonetheless, lenders should comply with the letter and spirit of the law. The report advocates for courts to “vigorously enforce the settlement conference law and deter banks from violating it by penalizing parties who appear in court without the authority and information needed to negotiate in good faith.” (2) Seems like a pretty reasonable recommendation to me.