Tenants Rights Group Slams Mayor’s Landlord-Tenant Mediation Program

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Rent, Evictions and other assorted CoronaVirus economic news headlines with US Capitol and money. Illustration from 123rf.

The ink has barely dried from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement this week of a new mediation program for tenants and landlords struggling with rent-related issues because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and already a coalition of legal aid attorney groups and non-profits dealing with housing are slamming it as favoring landlords.

Under the program, which was announced and started on Tuesday, tenants and landlords can now make use of a Citywide Landlord-Tenant Mediation Project, a program designed to help landlords and tenants resolve rent disputes outside of Housing Court. It comes just before the end of a statewide eviction moratorium that’s been in place since the start of the pandemic and will provide housing security to tenants suffering from hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the announcement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

“As the city continues to beat back COVID-19, we must use every tool at our disposal to keep tenants safely in their homes, especially in communities that were already burdened by the affordable housing crisis,” said de Blasio on Tuesday. “This project will ensure that New Yorkers aren’t forced from their home during this unprecedented health and economic crisis.”

But Susanna Blankley, the coalition coordinator for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, a group that focuses on evictions and tenants rights, said keeping cases out of housing court might actually be harmful for tenants.

“Who is benefiting by doing this?” Blankley said. “If the city’s goal in doing this is to try to alleviate the number of cases that get to housing court, what you’re doing is limiting the number of cases that actually get justice.”

Resolving cases quickly typically works out in the best interest of the landlord, not the tenant, she said, because landlords want to resolve cases while tenants want to know their rights.

The city would be better off investing in the right to counsel for everyone instead of diverting disputes away from Housing Court, she said. Without more details about the mediation program, she’s skeptical.

Typically, the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition advises their tenants to avoid mediations, she said. Housing law is complicated and landlord-tenant disputes are often about more than just rent payments and include other issues such as harassment and repairs. New York has more housing laws than there are federal laws and mediators are not specifically trained in them. She worries that tenants’ rights won’t be upheld or respected during the mediation process, she said.

“They are not going to be able to advocate for or explain to people their rights in order for them to come up with a settlement,” Blankley said about mediators. “There’s no way a mediation process can make sure the tenant has all of the options and understands all of their rights in deciding how to mediate that case. I don’t see how it’s possible.”

There is also an inherent power imbalance between the landlord and the tenant, she said. Landlords are more likely to have access to resources and legal advice than a tenant, which automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

As a trained mediator herself, Blankley said that they aren’t supposed to take on cases –– such as domestic violence cases or landlord-tenant cases –– where power imbalances exists.

“I have questions for the groups that want to mediate those cases about how it doesn’t conflict with mediation principles,” she said.

Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte

But Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Ditmas Park) praised the program and said that there is a great need for it in her district, which includes Flatbush, the neighborhood with the highest death rate from COVID-19 in the city. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated the housing disparities that already existed, she said.

“No one deserves to be evicted from their home because of income lost as a result of COVID-19,” Bichotte said.

The Citywide Landlord-Tenant Mediation Project’s goal is to help landlords and tenants come to practical solutions with the help of non-profit Community Dispute Resolution Centers (CDRCs). The hope is that they won’t have to go to housing court or begin official eviction proceedings. Litigation can have long term effects on tenants by limiting future housing options and causing them to be displaced from their home, according to de Blasio’s release.

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