The case, Lafayette Boynton Housing Corp. v. Pickett, involved a disabled man subsisting on social security. He had lived in his Bronx apartment for some 30 years. In 2011 the landlord started eviction proceedings for non-payment of rent. At that time the tenant owed $5,200 in arrears.
Over the next two years the tenant and his legal aid attorney he convinced a housing court judge to stay the warrant of eviction seven different times, based on promises to pay the arrears. By the time the tenant paid any arrears, however, he owed even more, because he was not paying his current rent each month. So the arrears kept climbing higher, and the promises to pay kept coming.
Finally, in 2013 the housing court refused to give the tenant any more chances, and the eviction went forward. A full month after the tenant was out of the apartment, he got additional public assistance and grant money and paid the judgment amount to the landlord. The full amount at that time, including the landlord’s legal fees, was $14,000.
Based on that payment, the housing court ordered the landlord to take the tenant back and to reinstate him into his old apartment. The Appellate Division upheld the lower court, noting that the tenant had made a good faith attempt to cure the arrears, and that it wasn’t the tenant’s fault that couldn’t pay up on time. It is not clear from the decision whose fault the judges thought it was.
Justice David Saxe, in a written dissenting opinion, said that the court’s majority decision “forces landlords to serve as de facto no-interest lenders to low-income tenants.” Justice Saxe also suggested that the housing court’s decision to give the tenant relief even after the warrant of eviction was executed went beyond the authority given by the applicable law (Section 749(3) of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, which only allows relief from eviction “for good cause shown” before the warrant of eviction is executed.)
Maybe this decision was inevitable. Anyone and everyone would want to help an elderly disabled person living on social security. But there is great danger in letting emotion go too far in applying the law. The law is supposed to be objective and impartial. Emotion is never objective or impartial. Do we want a society where rules are applied evenly and predictably? Or do we want a society where rules depend on how our judges, executives and police feel when they get up in the morning? All I can do is ask the question.