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The Housing Court – The Risk of Allowing Your Property to Fall Into Disrepair

February 16, 2009

Every homeowner should be aware that the responsibility for keeping up your real property, whether it is your personal residence or a rental property, is not merely a personal preference to be exercised only when you desire. The condition and appearance of the property is also a matter of public interest and, if you fail to maintain said property to the satisfaction of the municipality in which the property is located, you could find yourself being called before a judge in Housing Court.

New York State law grants the courts the right to establish a separate housing court division which deals exclusively with housing issues. The City of Buffalo has availed itself of this right and has had, for a few years now, a separate court division, headed by Judge Henry J. Nowak, which handles housing court violations and landlord/tenant matters exclusively. Towns, villages and smaller cities in the Western New The presiding judge possesses broad powers of enforcement of both the city’s housing code and the County Health Department code. The law allows him to use “any remedy, program, procedure or sanction authorized by law for the enforcement of housing standards” if he believes that it would more effectively “accomplish compliance or protect and promote the public interest”.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a Housing Court summons, your options are fairly limited. The only things the prosecutor needs to prove at trial is (1) that housing code or health code violations exist on the property (and this is done merely with the testimony of a building inspector who viewed the property and issued the charges) and (2) you owned the property at the time the violations occurred. Because of this, most cases are resolved with a guilty plea and very few go to trial.

Upon pleading guilty, the judge will usually grant you time to make the repairs necessary to bring the property “up to code”. Judge Nowak is very accommodating as long as you are making an effort to get the repairs done – he regularly adjourns matters several times so that compliance with the codes can be accomplished. Upon completion of the repairs, the matter is usually resolved with a conditional discharge (with the promise that no further violations will occur) and no fine will ensue. However, if you fail to appear in court when summoned, or fail to cooperate with the inspectors, or fail in getting the repairs completed, a hefty fine is probable. Fines can range from $1,000 – to several thousand dollars depending on the circumstances. If the property is beyond repair, the court can also order a demolition and the cost of same will be your responsibility.

The best advice to avoid Housing Court is to keep your property in good repair with regular maintenance and painting. Also, if the property is a rental property, make sure your tenants are not causing damage to the property and repair any as soon as possible. The presence of a belligerent tenant may require an eviction so that continuous repairs and possible violations are avoided. And if you do find yourself before Judge Nowak or any other judge relative to a housing court violation, make every effort to get the repairs done in an expedited manner to avoid costly fines and expenses.