AG James Fights For NYC’s Public Housing Tenants

Hochul signs Legislation

New York Attorney General Letitia James this week stood up for the city’s public housing tenants by filing an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for failing to meet the minimum standards of habitability for hundreds of thousands of its residents.

A tenants’ class action lawsuit filed in 2018 alleged that — during the winter of 2017-2018 — hundreds of thousands of NYCHA tenants suffered significant heat and hot water outages, sometimes lasting more than a week.

Attorney General of NY Letitia James
New York Attorney General Letitia James

“As New Yorkers suffered through the cold winter, NYCHA sat by as hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers went without heat or hot water,” said James. “The unfortunate truth is that no one should be shocked that the New York City Housing Authority sits atop the city’s worst landlord list with nearly 175,000 complaints, but we should all be appalled. Safe, habitable housing should be a right for every New Yorker, which is why I will continue to fight to ensure NYCHA and every landlord in New York lives up to that standard.”

The tenants’ lawsuit alleges that NYCHA breached the warranty of habitability in RPL § 235-b(1) and seeks damages and injunctive relief regarding heat and hot water services. The amicus brief supports the tenants’ argument that there is no federal preemption of their state-law claims and that the tenants are therefore entitled to pursue relief under New York law.

NYCHA had claimed federal preemption in this case based on a separate settlement agreement it reached in a lawsuit filed by the federal government for overlapping allegations related not only to heating, but also to mold and other physical deficiencies.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has regulatory jurisdiction over NYCHA under the Housing Act of 1937 because NYCHA receives federal funding. HUD and NYCHA entered into a settlement agreement under which NYCHA agreed to make a set of reforms under the supervision of a federal monitor.

Earlier this year, the New York County State Supreme Court concluded that NYCHA’s agreement with HUD preempted the tenants’ state-law claims because the agreement covered similar conduct as the tenants’ lawsuit. The tenants appealed that decision to the Appellate Division, First Department.

In the brief supporting the tenants’ appeal, James argues that NYCHA’s agreement expressly preserves the tenants’ state-law remedies, as well as NYCHA’s obligations under state law. She goes on to contend that federal habitability standards for public housing supplement, rather than displace, state and local habitability standards, as confirmed by federal statutory provisions and HUD regulations.

Finally, James argues that there is no actual conflict between this litigation and the HUD-appointed monitor’s plan for improving NYCHA’s heating services, as both are still in the early stages and no irreconcilable conflict has yet materialized.

NYCHA has jurisdiction over more than 175,000 housing units with approximately 400,000 tenants.