Righting the Scales of Justice: The Critical Need for Contempt Proceedings Against Lawless Landlords

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Armen H. Merjian is a civil rights and poverty lawyer at Housing Works, Inc., the largest provider of HIV/AIDS services in the State of New York, and the Legal Director of the HIV Law Project, Inc.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, Matthew Desmond demonstrates that lack of safe and stable housing, a fundamental human right, “is among the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today.” Yet, although more than one in three Americans (over one hundred million individuals) live in rental housing, landlord/tenant law is largely neglected in the scholarly literature. This Article is the first to address the use of contempt to enforce court orders to repair hazardous conditions. Hazardous living conditions affect millions of renters nationwide, and disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income individuals. This Article reviews the profound imbalance in power in the housing courts of New York, America’s largest city, and reveals that what was conceived as a forum to ensure safe and habitable housing has become a collection and eviction service for landlords. It is a system that, between 2011 and 2016, yielded 117,952 evictions, yet fewer than fifty contempt rulings for failure to obey court orders to repair hazardous conditions; this, despite landlords’ chronic and widespread flouting of such orders. The Article contends that rather than merely returning to court over and over for the reissuance of orders to repair, courts and practitioners must initiate contempt proceedings. The Article demonstrates, finally, how such proceedings can remedy this injustice, including (1) establishing deadlines for the completion of ordered repairs, with either imprisonment or fines for each day that the landlord continues to flout the court’s authority; (2) awarding damages to the aggrieved tenant, including damages for emotional distress and diminished habitability; and (3) awarding attorneys’ fees and costs to tenants’ counsel.

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