Friday, October 15, 2010

Housing Court Games

by Michael Dymmoch

The lease is up. The tenant won’t leave. Eviction is an option (two years ago!). What’s the deal?

Maybe the neighbors don’t like the bar, but the landlord doesn’t want to piss his tenant off. Because even though the lease expired, the bar is current on its rent. (And A bird in the cage is worth twenty flying around outside.) It’s all a game.

It’s not a bad way to operate if you’re a landlord with a not-so-bad tenant. You don’t live in the neighborhood, don’t have to put up with the noise and the empties and drunks urinating on your porch. You’re collecting your rent. You can tell the neighbors—and the cops if the bar gets to be a problem—that your hands are tied—your tenant just won’t leave. (Not that you really want it to.) And you have the option of evicting the bar if someone makes you a better offer. Another example of the Chicago Way. (Though I bet it’s happening everywhere.)

Winning in court is more a matter of tactics and patience than of having a good legal case. The Constitution guarantees that you can’t deprive citizens of life, liberty or property without due process. It doesn’t guarantee speedy process. And due process requires that persons in possession be served with papers before a court can kick ‘em out, an issue that drags an eviction out for weeks or months. Even if the City gets an order to demolish a building that’s hazardous and irreparable, an attorney can get a stay of execution—even when a building inspector has testified that the one thing wrong with the building is EVERYTHING, that it doesn’t even have a roof!

Private lawyers get paid by the hour by people with the money to hire them. Public lawyers get paid to handle all the cases brought to them, which sometimes means they don’t have a lot of time to spend on any single case. Housing court judges are elected; that means they’re politicians first. And most people have no idea what goes on in housing court—how their tax dollars are being spent—unless they’re hauled in for a violation or eviction. Something that almost never happens to most of us.