This article was written by the team of housing experts at JustFix
Learn more about escalating issues in your home with a legal case known as an HP Action
Use JustFix’s Who Owns What tool to research your landlord
So… you’ve reached out to your landlord via text, phone, and email countless times about the same repair issue. Despite your persistence, your landlord hasn’t done anything. Not hearing back about dangerous conditions is, at best disheartening, and at worst, potentially life-threatening. In New York City, every residential tenant enjoys the protection of the “Warranty of Habitability.” This law makes it a contractual requirement that your landlord fix your apartment, no matter what it says in your lease says about who has to make repairs. If your landlord doesn’t respond to your requests for repairs, you can sue your landlord in housing court for repairs in an HP Action (or a Housing Part Action).
If your landlord hasn’t responded to your complaints via phone, text, or email, send a more official-looking Letter of Complaint. JustFix’s Letter of Complaint tool generates a free certified letter describing your complaints and the potential legal consequences your landlord could face for failing to make repairs. Although the Letter of Complaint isn’t a legally required step, if you ever end up in court, it helps you show the landlord had notice of the issues.* Along with sending a Letter of Complaint, you can notify the City of New York by calling 311. When you call 311, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”) will send an inspector to visit your apartment and assess the conditions. If repeated calls to 311 fail to push the needle forward, consider going to housing court to file an HP Action in Housing Court.
*KNOW THE RISK: If you are a “market tenant” (i.e. not NYCHA and not rent stabilized/controlled), you may have fewer protections against eviction or large rent increases.
Calling 311, sending a Letter of Complaint, or starting an HP Action may upset your landlord. An upset landlord could refuse to renew your lease or may increase your rent. This is illegal retaliation.
The right to file an HP Action applies to any person living in a rental apartment, including leaseholders, sublettors, roommates, and month-to-month tenants. Similarly, renters living in any kind of housing may bring an HP Action, including those living in rent-stabilized units, market-rate apartments, public housing, co-ops, and condos. Finally, occupants can sue any type nearly all owners for repairs, including individuals, corporations, and trusts. While occupants can also sue for harassment, this article focuses on lawsuits related to apartment conditions.
Step 1: Go to Housing Court
First, locate the housing court in your borough. Plan to arrive early when the court opens at 8:30 AM as you may need to spend the entire morning (or even part of the afternoon) in court or at the post office. The court security checkpoint takes time and often requires long waits outside, so dress for the weather and bring an umbrella in case of rain.
A ballpoint pen with black ink
Any evidence you have, such as photos, text messages, notes of temperature readings, etc.
Quarters to make copies, although the court will allow to take photos of documents with your phone’s camera
While JustFix does not believe in telling tenants what to wear, the Court asks you to wear clothing they refer to as “nice.”
Filing an HP Action costs $45.00. No personal checks are accepted, but you can pay with exact change in cash, bank check, certified check, or money order. Low income tenants can ask to have the fee waived.
Leave at home:
Anything sharp like a pocket knife or weapon;
Hats, unless for religious reasons;
Food, but you can bring a protein bar or a bottle of water.
Step 2: Getting the forms
Once you go through security, ask for directions to the clerk’s office where you’ll likely wait in another long line. Ask around to ensure you’re waiting in the correct line for filing an “HP Action.”
Once you reach the front of the line, tell the clerk you would like to file an HP Action against your landlord for bad conditions in your apartment. You can also file an HP Action because of landlord harassment. If you believe your landlord has harassed you, tell the clerk you’d like to add claims for harassment. The clerk will give you a packet of information to fill out on carbon copy papers.
Fill out every page of the packet on a hard surface using a black ballpoint pen. You will write on the front pages, but every page behind will serve as an important copy. You will want them to be legible. Press hard because all the pages behind the front page are copies that go to different places. If the impression doesn’t go through, the later copies won’t be readable, and the clerk may ask you to re-do the paperwork. If you are able to read the copies, the clerk won’t ask you to re-do the packet. Your packet will contain:
An order to show cause: This is mainly for the Judge to fill out.
A petition: This is where you’ll note your complaints.
An HPD inspection form: This is where you’ll schedule a time for the City to visit your apartment. Please note if you have a child under six years old so the City can send a lead inspector.
A fee waiver: If you are a low-income person, you may qualify to have the $45.00 filing fee waived. Otherwise, the clerk will ask you to pay via money order, exact change, or certified/bank check.
Step 3: Filling out the forms: If you aren’t sure, ask for help!
If you’re not sure how to fill something out, do not guess. Ask the Clerk or look for a help table with the name Housing Court Answers. You may end up waiting in additional lines to ask questions, but it’s worth the wait to fill out the forms correctly. Even a small mistake might mean you have to re-file the lawsuit. While filling out the forms, here are some key phrases to know.
Petitioner: In many courts, the person doing the suing is called the “Plaintiff” but housing court calls that person the “Petitioner.” If you’re bringing the case, you’re the Petitioner.
Respondent: Instead of “Defendant,” housing court calls the person being sued the “Respondent.” In a case for repairs, the respondents may include the landlord, the managing agent, the superintendent, and in all cases, HPD. Make sure to spell the names of respondents correctly and identify their addresses correctly. Mistakes here can result in the case being dismissed, or thrown out by the judge. If this happens, you can start again.
While you can name an individual person you know to manage or “own” your building, most owners are actually corporations that have names ending in “LLC” or “Inc.” Use JustFix’s Who Owns What tool to identify the owner. Be sure to cross-reference the names and business addresses of the parties on the building’s registration page through HPD’s website to ensure you wrote in the right companies or people. The clerk in housing court can likely help you look this up.
HPD inspection: Once you know the Respondents, you’ll fill out a Request for Inspection with HPD. The clerk will ask you to use the same carbon copy paper to list all your repair complaints in your apartment and the common areas. You can only list 10 per page so do not be afraid to ask for additional forms.
Lead Inspection: On the HPD inspection form, check off if you have children under the age of six who live in the apartment or visit frequently. If you are not comfortable giving their full names, you can use a pseudonym or just a first name. If you indicate a child under six spends time in the apartment, you’ll get a lead inspection. Note the date and time of the inspection and be sure you can be home. If you work full time, ask the clerk for a weekend inspection!
Step 4: Getting the Judge’s Signature
After you have completed the forms, the clerk will submit them to the judge. Often, the judge will take a few hours to review the forms. At 1:00pm, Judges break for lunch so if it’s already approaching lunch time, you may need to return after 2:00pm to wait.
If the judge signs the Order to Show Cause, that form will contain key information: you will receive a date and time for your court date as well as instructions on how to serve the papers. There will also be an index number that corresponds with your case, and you can look up court information on e-courts. Finally, you will get confirmation of a date/time for your HPD inspection (which occurs before the first court date). Usually, you’ll need someone 18 years or older home during a 3-4 hours window on the date assigned.
Step 5: Serving the Papers
Many tenants find a day in court very stressful. But, the most important work still lies ahead. The document labeled “Order to Show Cause” contains key information about how you must “serve” the papers. “Service” refers to the method for telling the landlord about the court case and when it is in court. Even if you told the landlord about the court date by text or orally, you MUST still serve the papers according to the instructions stated and by the due date listed on the Order to Show Cause. Failure to properly “serve” the papers will result in the Judge dismissing your case and asking you to start all over.
Most Judges will require tenants to send one copy of all the papers via certified mail, return receipt requested regular mail. Occasionally, a judge may ask you to give the papers to your landlord personally. For mailing, you need to visit the post office and save all proof from the mailing. Finally, you need to complete an “affidavit of service” that attests to the fact that you followed all instructions before the due date. For personal delivery, you can use a form provided by the court, but you need to sign it in the presence of a notary. The first court date may be weeks or a month away, but in the meantime, HPD will inspect your apartment, and you can start preparing.
Step 6: Preparing for the Court Date
Before the Court date, check your “Request for Inspection” form to confirm the date and time the Court has asked HPD to come to your apartment. Even though the form may indicate a 4-hour window, try to stay home an hour before and an hour after the window. When HPD arrives, make sure to walk the inspector around your apartment and building to point out each and every condition. Because judges rely on the HPD inspection, to have a successful court date, you must make sure HPD gets in to inspect your apartment. If you miss the inspection, call 311. Although the Judge will review the HPD inspection and any violations placed through 311 before all else, you can bring copies of your 311 complaint numbers, emails, texts, or letters you’ve sent to your landlord to show the landlord had notice of your complaints. Some tenants also bring notes or “heat logs” they took when their apartment dropped below legal levels. To learn more about an HP Action for a lack of heat or hot water, visit JustFix’s learning center about the NYC Heat Law.
Tenants often bring photos of bad conditions to court, but judges often won’t review your photos on a first court date. However, bringing copies of your photos doesn’t hurt. Some judges will look at them and sometimes photos can help the landlord or the landlord’s attorney understand the urgent nature of the problem.
Do I appear in person or virtually?
During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, some court appearances have occurred over Microsoft Teams, an online platform. But, unless you find a lawyer to represent you, most court dates will occur in person. Look at the Order to Show Cause signed by the Judge for instructions on whether to appear in person. If you’re not sure, you can call the Court Clerk in your borough.
What happens when I appear in person? Can I get a lawyer?
As with filing the HP Action, try to arrive early to leave time to get through security and leave behind any prohibited items. Bring with you a black ballpoint pen, your court papers, and, most importantly, your affidavits of service.
Court rooms are called “Parts.” So, you’ll want to check to make sure you go to the right “Part” or court room. The part you’re looking for is called the “HP Part.” Outside the Part, you should see a list of cases in somewhat random order. Look for your case and note down the number that appears next to it (from 1 onward). When you walk in, wait in line to “check in” and let the court clerk know you’ve arrived. If you don’t check in, you automatically lose your case. Usually, the court will call your name if you don’t check in so if you hear your name, make sure to say you’re in the courtroom.
Free lawyers typically focus on eviction cases, so you’ll likely have to navigate your court appearance “pro se,” which means without a lawyer. That said, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC often have offices in the courthouses, and you can try to check in with them about whether they can assist you with your HP Action.
Who are the people in the courtroom?
Judge: The judge sits in front of the courtroom. Before the Judge appears, you may see other court staff. Often, the judge will wear a robe.
Judge’s Court Attorney: Every judge has an attorney who helps them throughout the day. Sometimes, tenants confuse the court attorney with other attorneys in the courtroom. If you’re not sure who is who, don’t be afraid to ask.
HPD Attorney: Luckily, for most HP Actions, HPD will send a lawyer who represents the City. While this lawyer does not represent you–the tenant–HPD has a legal interest in making sure landlords maintain safe housing in New York City. Unfortunately, HPD lawyers will not appear in cases filed by NYCHA tenants. While the HPD attorney cannot give you legal advice, this person may be able to suggest some next steps to help your case move in the right direction.
Court Officer: The Court Officer usually wears a uniform and carries a gun. This person’s job is to answer questions and keep peace in the courtroom.
Court Clerk: Sometimes, you’ll also see a clerk or a person who sits up front and helps check people in. When you arrive, you’ll want to “check in” with the Court Clerk. You can provide them with the number of your case or your name.
Landlord Attorney: Most landlords will hire an attorney to represent them in court. If your landlord has an attorney, remember, this person does not represent your interests.
What actually happens on the first court date?
If the landlord or an attorney representing the landlord does not appear, the Judge or the Court Attorney will ask you for evidence that you properly serviced the papers. Make sure you have your affidavits of service and any paperwork from the post office. The Judge or the Court Attorney will review these carefully.
Sometimes, if the landlord appears, the landlord will still claim you failed to properly serve the papers. Have your papers ready for review. Either way, most landlords will ask for “an adjournment” or more time within which to make the repairs. While judges often grant adjournments, if you have serious conditions in the apartment, you can ask the Judge, Court Attorney, or HPD attorney to ask that the landlord agree, in writing, to fix those problems right away. You will need to select “access dates” for the landlord’s workers to come and you should ask that this all be written down in a “stipulation.” If the agreement is not in writing and not signed by the Judge, you have no way to enforce it later on.
What happens on access dates?
If you have agreed to allow the landlord access to the apartment, make sure you and/or someone 18 or older stays home during the access period. Many landlords will claim you failed to provide access so you may want to consider asking a neighbor or a friend to join you on access date(s) as a witness. If your landlord doesn’t come on the access dates or comes but makes poor quality repairs, you’ll want to let the Judge know on the next court date.
What happens after access dates?
Most often, tenants need to return to court multiple times to force the landlord to complete the repairs. If the conditions re-occur after a few months, you may need to file an “Order to Show Cause” to “Restore” the case to the calendar. When you restore the case because the landlord failed to make the promised repairs, you are asking the judge to hold the landlord in “contempt,” which means the judge can fine or imprison the landlord for their failure to comply with a court order.
Can I get money off my rent for all this trouble?
Many tenants try to negotiate in housing court for an abatement or a reduction in the rent. While you can always ask the landlord or the landlord attorney for money off the rent, most landlords do not agree, and many judges will not award you money. In some cases, the judge may impose fines and penalties upon the landlord. This money is paid to the City, not to the tenant. In harassment cases, a judge may impose fines and penalties to be paid to the tenant.
While individual tenants rarely find legal services attorneys to represent them, organized groups of neighbors interested in filing an HP Action together may have an easier time getting free legal assistance. Contact tenant organizing groups or legal services providers in your area to get support. You have the right to a safe, habitable home. While HP Actions require time, patience, and attention to detail, taking your landlord to housing court–rather than the other way around–serves not just a practical purpose of getting repairs. Bringing your landlord to court counters the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. Housing Court should not be a forum for violent displacement, but a place for tenants to seek just, safe, and equitable housing.