Landlords Blacklist Tenants Who've Been to Court

Rent Wars (Rentwars)

Wednesday, May 15, 2002 - 02:55 am
This month, writer Vicki Richman shares her experience and research on the tenant blacklist. Vicki was recently evicted from her long time apartment by Columbia University after a grueling appellate pro se battle (first reported here at RWN, and you can read all about it at

Tenants who have been to housing court for any reason, to request repairs, to seek proper accounting of their rents, to fight eviction, or even due to clerical errors, are systematically blacklisted by the New York real estate industry. In the heat of a housing crunch with low vacancy rates, this Tenant Blacklist can devestate its victims and may be a major cause of the rise of homeless families citywide.

Since the Andrea v. The Giant story last year Rent Wars has been working on this issue but, due to issues with volunteer reporters, we haven't been able to put the story together until Vicki came along with her own blacklisting experience. A journalist and member of the writers union, Vicki Richman scores a slam dunk expose for all tenants who are, or may soon be, on the Tenant Blacklist.

Now without further delay Rent Wars presents:

Landlords Blacklist Tenants Who've Been to Court
Vicki Richman

"You can't get an apartment if you were evicted," said
the broker before she hung up on me. "The reason doesn't

I had already been refused two apartments because my
landlord had booted me. I learned to lead off by trying to
explain why I had been in court five years, arguing my right
to succeed to rent-control tenancy. The landlord, Columbia
University, finally won the case in the Appellate Division,
and began physical removal as soon as the final decision was
handed down, early in 2002. We had precious little time to
escape with as many of my family's treasured possessions as
we could grab before the marshals swept down on us.

But in trying to find a new home, we faced a new
question on the landlord boilerplate: "Have you ever been in
Housing Court?" No space was available for the reason or for
the outcome. Our mere presence on the court roll call was
sufficient to deny us an apartment.

Suppose I said that I had never been in Housing Court.
Wouldn't work. There are at least two databases that provide
that information, gleaned from public records. But only
owners or realtors, who must supply a deed or an active
license, may subscribe. In addition to appearances in
Housing Court, the databases provide credit checks, and they
are governed by consumer law requiring them to copy
prospective tenants on their reports, with a way to refute
the data.

The most popular database is the New American Registry, known
simply as "The Registry" in the industry. Another is
American Tenant Service, or "ATS."
The Web pages show that they invite landlords to supply
additional information on tenants, such as identifying
alleged "troublemakers," without giving tenants a clear and
definite opportunity for rebuttal.

ATS called my case an "eviction" three years before I lost.
The Registry more accurately identified me simply as the
defendant, but failed to show that the case had nothing to
do with nonpayment. With marshals circling my door, the
time and effort for formal rebuttal made such protection

Landlords are surely not looking only for deadbeat
tenants; a simple credit report would turn them up. A name
on the Housing Court roll call reveals nothing about credit
worthiness. Does the tenant tend to question the landlord's
orders? That's what the landlord wants to know.
In our case, Columbia ordered us out, claiming I could
not succeed my mother. I disputed that opinion, and it took
the courts five years to decide who was right. But in
searching for a new home, I found myself blacklisted for not
vacating voluntarily to spare the landlord the burden of
proving the case in court.

In other cases, a tenant may have taken the landlord to
court for gross violations and even won. But in looking for
a new home such renters would find themselves shut out
simply for upholding the law. Landlords don't want tenants
who fight for their rights.

"Blacklisting, discrimination, exorbitant rents, poor
service, unsanitary housing, oppressive leases, are some of
the recognized evils which can be ameliorated if not
eliminated by an effective association of tenants." The Hon.
J. Levy, of the Bronx Municipal Court, wrote that in 1938,
when there was no Housing Court. An African-American tenant
-- identified only as the wife of the defendant, James
Coulter -- had started such a activist group in her
tenement. She and her family were evicted for her trouble.
She became so well-known in her community that no other
landlord would rent to her. Agreeing that she was
blacklisted for her activism, not her skin color, Judge Levy
gave her an extra six months to find a new home.

In 1962 William F. Buckley sued the president of Hunter
College for citing Buckley's political views as reason to
deny him rental of a meeting hall. The court ruled that,
unlike a profit-seeking landlord, a municipal-college
president may not restrain free speech. Small help to anyone
who needs a home, not a campus meeting hall!

However, a significant, but indirect, blow to
blacklisting was delivered by the United States Supreme
Court in 1972. Holding injury to their reputation in the
community and to their social and professional
opportunities, two tenants sued a landlord for
discriminating against blacks. The lower courts ruled that
only a black plaintiff who had been denied an apartment
could prevail in such a suit. Existing tenants could not
object to refusal to rent to others.

"The person on the landlord's blacklist," wrote Justice
Douglas for the court, unanimously overturning the earlier
decisions in Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life, "is not the
only victim of discriminatory housing practices; it is . . .
'the whole community' . . . ." While the case was only
about the Civil Rights Act of 1968 -- not the First
Amendment -- the justice's reasoning could be held to extend
the Buckley decision to include private landlords.
Systematic, unjust exclusion deprives existing tenants of
good neighbors.

Simply put, tenant groups, like the Met Council, have
devoted all their time to protecting tenants and none to
protecting prospective tenants. No pro bono group has yet
used the case law, skimpy as it is, for a definitive lawsuit
to stop blacklisting. Home-hunters rely on civil-rights
groups to protect them from discrimination by race, gender,
marital status, disability, or sexual orientation*.

But, although the law protects existing tenants from
retaliatory eviction, there is no statute to stop
blacklisting for political action or corrective litigation.
And no activism exists to plug that gap, which realtors and
managers are taking gleeful advantage of. Blatantly, openly,
unashamedly, they are refusing to rent to anyone who has
used tenant law or the First Amendment to protect herself
from a landlord.


* Editors note: in NYC there is also statutory protection for attorneys against housing discrimination, but there is little protection for their pro se victims.

Rent Wars (Rentwars)

Thursday, October 23, 2003 - 10:00 pm
The New York Times recently revisited this issue (from a more landlord friendly perspective):

Rent Wars (Rentwars)

Monday, October 27, 2003 - 12:17 pm
Here is another story that was done by Columbia University:

Rent Wars (Rentwars)

Saturday, October 16, 2004 - 11:27 am
Here are two more links from TenantNet:

read the whole article here:

read the two original NYTimes articles on blacklisting here: