A tenant’s refusal to comply with rules to sign in and out when leaving the premises of a Section 8 housing development is not grounds for eviction, a Nassau County judge has ruled.
“Without condoning respondent’s stubborn refusal to follow the sign-in rule for tenants, the subject violations do not appear to rise to a level allowing the landlord to charge respondent with a ‘material’ breach of his lease, sufficient to warrant his eviction under the applicable [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] regulations governing section 8 lease terminations,” District Court Judge Michael Ciaffa wrote on Oct. 18 in Hempstead Village Housing Associates v. Pitts, LT-005480-11.
After initiating eviction proceedings against John Pitts for repeated lease violations it considered both “substantial” and “minor,” Hempstead Village Housing Associates and Pitts reached an interim stipulation of settlement in December 2011. The agreement required Pitts’ attendance at anger management and contained a 10-month monitoring period of his conduct.
In July, the landlord argued that Pitts, 43, who has lived in the building since 2001, was purportedly violating the settlement by not keeping to the sign-in rules for residents and visitors.
In one instance, a security guard’s report showed Pitts became “very upset” when asked to sign in and said “it is B.S. that the tenants have to sign in and that it’s harassment.”
A subsequent security guard report said Pitts would not sign, complaining “he feels like an inmate.”
The rule applies only when a security guard is present in the lobby.
Hempstead Village Housing Associates said Pitts’ refusal was a “material” lease violation justifying eviction.
But Pitts’ lawyer, Lisa Levy, a staff attorney with Nassau/Suffolk Law Services, argued to the contrary and questioned whether the sign-in rule served a valid purpose.
In his decision, Ciaffa observed that Section 8 landlords are allowed to enact “house rules,” but according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development handbook on Section 8 housing, those rules should not be “excessive or extreme” and had to be “within the bounds of common sense.”
“‘Common sense’ suggests that the subject ‘sign in/out’ rule, as applied to tenants by building management only during limited hours each day, represents an unreasonable and excessive restriction,” Ciaffa wrote.
He added that the rule, while understandable for visitors and guests, fails to further the landlord’s “legitimate interest” in tenants’ comfort and safety.
Ciaffa said the rule was “applied sporadically and inconsistently from day to day and hour to hour,” noting a security guard is already stationed in the lobby while residents are issued key cards for entry.
“The rule, in its current form, and as applied to tenants, is unreasonable and excessive, and thus violates HUD guidelines for section 8 housing,” Ciaffa said.
The judge noted that he did not mean to interfere with general security decisions. “But in the absence of some clearer proof that the current rule, as applied to tenants in its present form, reasonably furthers a substantial legitimate security interest, the alleged violations by respondent are not enough to support an eviction under the HUD rules governing evictions from section 8 housing.”
Ciaffa scheduled a Nov. 15 court date to determine if further court involvement is necessary.
“Our goal in challenging this rule was to have it stricken because we did not feel that simply because tenants were living in subsidized housing they should be forced to be at the mercy of the landlord and be forced to be overseen by the landlord,” said Levy. “They should be able to come and go as they please, just like everyone else who lives in a house or apartment.”
Walsh & Roth in West Babylon represented Hempstead Village Housing Associates.
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