A Brooklyn housing program is not exempt from New York administrative rules preventing unlawful evictions, even when occupants have signed waivers of their rights as tenants, according to a Brooklyn Housing Court judge.
The decision is the latest in a series of rulings that clarify the rights of people residing in so-called “three quarter houses” as they complete drug treatment programs or get back on their feet after jail time.
The case was brought by Linette Cooper, who was evicted on July 11 from the three-quarter house where she had been residing since April. Prior to that, she had been homeless for four months. The New York City Department of Social Services paid her $215 monthly rent for a bunk bed in a Brooklyn facility called Back on Track.
In a July 15 trial before Judge Laurie Lau, Cooper testified she signed a 17-page license agreement upon moving in to the Back on Track home stating occupants were excluded from landlord-tenant laws because they were participants in a recovery program, not tenants. Cooper said she could not read the agreement because she did not have glasses, and that Back on Track staff did not explain she could be evicted at any time.
Three-quarter houses are one- and two-family homes or apartment buildings that rent beds to single adults and collect their welfare or disability checks as rent. They are for-profit entities and purport to provide support services and counseling funded by government agencies. Move-in agreements often state that occupants can be removed for any reason, particularly if they are not enrolled in a treatment program.
In her July 25 opinion in Cooper v. Back on Track Group, Inc., 16348/14, Lau wrote that Back on Track violated city and state protections for tenants.
New York State Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law §711 defines a landlord-tenant relationship as one where a person lawfully occupies a dwelling for at least 30 consecutive days. That law, along with New York City administrative codes governing unlawful eviction, make it illegal for landlords to evict tenants outside of court proceedings.
“The court finds [Back on Track's] argument that licensees housed at BOT are exempt from statutory protections and may be subject to extra-judicial eviction unpersuasive and not grounded in fact or law,” Lau wrote. “There exists no law exempting BOT from the requirement to afford petitioner, and indeed other occupants of BOT’s bunk beds, due process of law.”
Calling the license agreement “formidable and oppressive,” Lau said Back on Track’s classification of its occupants as participants did not render their tenant rights invalid. She ordered the facility to allow Cooper back into her room.
“The decision makes it clear [Back on Track is] no more than an ordinary landlord,” said Cooper’s attorney, Tanya Kessler of MFY Legal Services. “They were trying to call themselves something else as a way of evading the most basic tenets of landlord-tenant law.”
The defendants’ attorney, Maryl Wenig of landlord-tenant firm Wenig Saltiel, countered that Lau “erred in determining the occupants have tenant rights.”
“We believe the ruling could shut down every three-quarter program in the state of New York,” Wenig said. “What it says is that anyone in a drug treatment program living in a three-quarter house can drop out after 30 days and stay there while the operators go to court to evict them. And their bed will be kept from someone who needs help.”
At least 317 three-quarter houses operate in New York City, according to an October 2013 report by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. They are unlicensed, unregulated and tend to be clustered in low-income communities in the south Bronx, central Brooklyn and southeast Queens.
Waivers of tenant rights are common in three-quarter housing, Kessler said. MFY Legal Services runs a three-quarter house project where it holds “Know Your Rights” workshops for occupants and represents them in eviction or housing violation proceedings. Its clients typically complain the three-quarter facilities are dirty, overcrowded and do not provide promised support services.
MFY Legal Services, the Legal Aid Society and other legal services nonprofits have brought several cases against New York three-quarter housing operators in the past few years.
In March 2012, a Bronx Housing Court judge ruled that a Bronx facility could not evict a parolee outside the procedures and protections afforded tenants under state housing law, Gregory v. Crespo, 801290/12 (NYLJ, March 20, 2012). He had resided there for more than 30 days, and his rent was paid by the city Department of Social Services.
In January, the Appellate Division, Second Department, reinstated claims by occupants of several three-quarter houses that housing operators unlawfully evicted them and did not provide support services, David v. #1 Marketing Services, Inc. 30238/10. That case considered the occupants licensees, and not tenants, in the context of a rent stabilization case. It is pending in Kings County Supreme Court.
A 2009 ruling by the Appellate Division, First Department, found that three-quarter house occupants are tenants and thus entitled to relocation assistance, Matter of Smith v. Donovan, NY Slip Op 02885 (2009).
But the most recent decision in Cooper’s case goes further in clarifying why the waivers are illegal, Kessler said. “This is the first decision we’ve seen that’s included as much detail on the purported agreements people are asked to sign,” she said.
Cooper has not yet decided whether she will return to Back on Track, her attorney said.
Back on Track plans to appeal, Wenig said.