Home Is Where the Rights Are

A look at what happens when disputes arise between county tenants and landlords



I n the 1990 movie Pacific Heights, a couple rents an apartment in their home to a seemingly normal guy but soon discovers that their new tenant isn’t who he seems to be. The man, played by Michael Keaton, refuses to pay rent, changes the locks, and does loud construction all through the night. Keaton’s character was a con man who used the tenant laws to help him live rent free—and it worked, for a while. In The Super, another 1990 flick, Joe Pesci plays the landlord of an apartment building where there is no heat, there are electricity shortages, and rats run amok. Branded with the title of a “slumlord,” his character is forced to live in the building until he brings it up to code.

You might think that these sorts of things only happen in the movies, but Westchester tenants and landlords, and the attorneys and organizations that represent both sides, can all tell thousands of similar, local tales that could be made into their own motion pictures.

Certainly the story of a family Mount Vernon landlord Hopeton Willis was trying to evict would qualify for a long cinematic run. The family hadn’t paid rent for four months, Willis claims, and when he tried to evict them, they called the local news and complained of a rat problem. Only thing is, they weren’t your typical rats.

“She went to the pet store and bought some rats to put in her apartment and took pictures of them to show the news,” Willis says. “It was the craziest thing I ever dealt with.” Although the family was evicted a month later, Willis says he never got any of the money owed him, which he says totaled in excess of a few thousand dollars. He doesn’t deny that there may have been some rats around the building, but he did try to send an exterminator, whom he says his tenants wouldn’t let in. Besides, he blames the tenants for throwing garbage out of the window, thus creating piles of trash, which attracted the rats. “I regret ever buying a building,” Willis says. “You work hard and try to get ahead with an investment and you have to deal with people who don’t want to pay you.”

Or take the case of two sisters who had so much water dripping into their apartment that it infested the apartment with toxic mold. They were moved into a different home while the cleanup was supposedly going on and wound up in an eviction hearing a few months later. “When they wanted to move them back, there was still mold everywhere,” reports attorney John Campbell, managing partner of Tilem & Campbell in White Plains. “Despite the fact that they were paying their rent, the landlord brought up eviction proceedings against them, and that’s when we got hired. These large landlords are used to bullying people and usually—not always—they take advantage of them. That wasn’t the case here. These were people who had jobs and had the money to fight them.”

Thanks to a furniture expert and the evidence of the damaged goods, the landlord settled and the sisters got what Campbell described as a “very nice settlement.” Now they have new furniture, new clothes, and a much cleaner place in which to live.

Michael Rosen lived in a building in White Plains for seven months. Several times, he came home and found the landlord inside his apartment claiming to be fixing things.

“Nothing needed to be fixed and I got suspicious and I started to notice things were missing—little things like a remote and a photo of the fridge,” Rosen says. “One day I came home and found him in my closet. I threw him out, told him I was leaving and demanded my security deposit back or I would call the police.”

He did get his money back and decided against calling the authorities because of the hassle it would have been. But now he’s a bit more cautious in his renting.

Then there’s the story of tenants in New Rochelle who came out and admitted to their landlord that they didn’t have the money to pay their $1,200 monthly rent, but were using the system to help them get by.

“They work in Elmsford and wanted to move up there, but couldn’t save money and move at the same time,” says attorney David Stone, head of David Stone Esq. Law Offices in New Rochelle. The tenants decided to stop paying rent knowing eviction proceedings will take months, giving them enough time to save up the money to move. “The tenants are using—really abusing—the system,” Stone says. “The landlord/tenant laws are really written with a bias for the tenant. There’s a petition for eviction, but that will not happen right away.”

When it comes to eviction proceedings, it’s not easy. “It’s a very confusing system and it’s not designed for the landlord,” says Andrew Romano, an attorney in Yonkers, the city in Westchester that had the most petitions for evictions last year with 7,500 (out of a total nearing 30,000 in the County). “There are weird technicalities taken throughout the process, and it’s no wonder that, after divorce, it is considered the second most emotional area of law.” 

Landlords have the right to go to court and evict tenants if they refuse to pay rent. But, according to an agent at Target Realty in Yonkers, it takes a lot of time, and the result isn’t always favorable.

Over the years the company has seen tenants refuse to pay rent, shelter animals when it’s prohibited, and engage in illegal activities including drug use and keeping illegal guns. Target Realty estimates it loses between $50,000 to $100,000 each year in rents that aren’t collected.

Landlord/tenant actions are known as “special procedures,” and are designed to move quickly to avoid long, drawn-out civil cases. “The process is fairly simple,” Stone says. “The local courts will help the parties fill out the paperwork, but it is a creature of statute and you have to follow the statute very particularly. If it says, ‘Stand on your head and spin around three times and whistle Dixie,’ you have to do that or the action can be dismissed for failure to follow [directions]. You can go through six months of litigation and eviction can be dismissed because you missed one step.”

And attorneys, some say, are good at using delay tactics to avoid evictions. “They’ll say the eviction notice wasn’t served properly or the wrong name was used and they will force the landlord to re-file,” Campbell says

But—and here’s the irony—these battles often escalate (Romano says he knows plenty of incidents that involved death threats, guns, and even stabbings) because of that old reason that causes bad blood in friendships, marriages, and among co-workers: poor communication. Aside from a few rare cases, most people involved in tenant/landlord disputes aren’t evil by nature and aren’t looking to hurt anyone.

The landlords just want their money and the tenants just want a safe place to live.

“Very often we find that if we can get tenants to put things in writing and explain the situation to their landlord, we can work through the problem,” says Fair Housing Direcor Ann Seligsohn. “Maybe they want a leaking faucet fixed but they don’t tell the landlord when they will be home and he comes a few times with no answer and it doesn’t get fixed and everyone is angry. If you let them know when you will be home and what needs to be done, it can often be worked out.” 

This was the case for White Plains resident Roberta Caldwell and her landlord, Manuel Guttierez. She’d complained for months about having no hot water and stopped paying rent. He was irritated that she was three months behind on the rent. Eviction was threatened, so was a lawsuit, but luckily calmer heads prevailed. “I left her a note on her door to call me rather than get all heated,” Guttierez says. “We were able to work everything out. I was working on her problem, which took a while to figure out. We fixed the broken pipe, she eventually paid her rent and everything is fine now.”

Of course, neither side ever wants to go the eviction route if it can be avoided, but Romano notes that in these times of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, many tenants are just broke. “It’s not the landlords’ job to carry these people and they need to pay mortgages and taxes, and if they aren’t getting the rent, they need to take action,” he says. “It’s just an unfortunate situation when people wind up getting hurt.”

Larchmont freelancer Keith Loria spends his time away from his assignments as a stay-at-home dad. In addition to covering Westchester news, he writes about sports for the NBA and NHL and has a background in entertainment writing.