Evict Crisis Feared
Gov's escrow plan dangerous, judge sez

by MICHAEL FINNEGAN
Daily News, June 7, 1997
City tenants face a surge in evictions if Gov. Pataki and state lawmakers require apartment dwellers to put rent money in escrow during disputes with landlords, a top judge warned yesterday.

Justice Fern Fisher-Brandveen, administrator of the city Civil Court, said mandatory rent deposits would trigger a significant jump in the 22,000 evictions that now occur citywide each year.

"There will be some tenants who will not be able to put the rent up in court right away," she said.

Fisher-Brandveen said requiring rent deposits would aggravate overcrowding and put new pressure on overburdened Civil Court judges who preside over hundreds of thousands of housing cases.

Landlords have been fighting for years for a law to require escrow deposits from tenants who withhold rent during housing disputes. They say it's often impossible to collect back rent from a tenant even if a judge rules in the landlord's favor.

Pataki has proposed mandatory rent deposits as part of his proposed overhaul of state rent laws. Unless state officials break a long-running deadlock, the laws will expire in eight days leaving more than 2 million tenants without legal protection against unrestricted rent hikes.

Fellow Republicans who control the state Senate are expected to approve an escrow deposit plan similar to the one proposed by Pataki. But approval by the Democratic-controlled Assembly is uncertain.

"The current law is certainly adequate," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

City judges currently have the discretion to require rent deposits, but rarely do so.

Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said mandatory deposits "would protect tenants from massive bills at the end of a landlord dispute, making it easier for them to keep their apartments."

But Angelita Anderson, executive director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, said requiring rent deposits before a court case can be heard would signal "that tenants are guilty before they even get a chance to prove they're innocent."

Fisher-Brandveen's warning was the latest prediction of major legal problems that could result from a major overhaul of the laws. Three of the city's top prosecutors this week criticized a plan by Pataki's plan to wipe out rent protections as tenants move out of their apartments or die.

District Attorneys Robert Morgenthau of Manhattan, Charles Hynes of Brooklyn and Richard Brown of Queens said it could spur harassment of tenants by landlords trying to force renters out.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who has joined Pataki in calling for vacancy decontrol, accused the prosecutors of "putting politics ahead of law enforcement."