Man living at SRO hotel is permanent tenant: appeals court

Reuters
by Joseph Ax
April 16, 2013
Read the decision here.

New York -- A homeless man who lived more than six months in a single-room occupancy hotel in New York City under an agreement with a city agency is a "permanent tenant" under rent stabilization law, a New York appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

Phillip Pitt satisfied the requirements of Rent Stabilization Code 2520.6(j), which defines a permanent tenant in hotel housing as an individual who has continuously resided there for at least six months, the Appellate Division, First Department, said. That is true even though he did not have a landlord-tenant relationship with the hotel, since the city's Human Resources Administration paid his rent under the terms of a deal with the hotel's owner.

Though Pitt no longer lives at the hotel, located on West 103rd Street in Manhattan and owned by Branic International Realty Corp, the court said the case posed an issue of "substantial public interest."

"This court must address the question of what constitutes a legal tenancy under the Rent Stabilization Code, and what rights are vested in a person occupying premises under the contract between a landlord and a social service agency," wrote Justice Darcel Clark for a unanimous five-judge panel. "This is an issue that affects a large number of New Yorkers who declare permanent tenancy in a SRO."

Lawyers for Branic said they would appeal the decision.

"The decision ... stands for the untenable proposition that squatters who illegally occupy a room in New York City for more than six months, without paying any rent, without having a lease, and without having any agreement or landlord-tenant relationship with the building owner, can transform their illegal squatting into permanent legal rights of endless legal possession," they said in a statement.

'PERMANENT TENANT'

The HRA and Branic signed a memorandum of agreement in 2003 allowing HRA to rent 134 rooms to house the homeless. Pitt was referred to Branic's single-room occupancy hotel in January 2003. HRA paid his nightly rate of $65 until April 2007, when it informed Branic that it would stop payments because Pitt no longer lived there, the decision said.

Pitt in fact continued to live at the hotel without paying, according to the court. In June 2007, Branic filed a holdover proceeding in New York City Civil Court, arguing that Pitt was not a tenant.

Pitt moved for summary judgment, saying he was a "permanent tenant" under the Rent Stabilization Code.

The civil court granted Pitt's motion in 2009, but the Appellate Term, First Department, reversed that decision in 2010, ruling that the lack of a landlord-tenant relationship between Pitt and Branic meant that he could not be a permanent tenant.

The First Department, however, wrote on Tuesday that a "plain reading" of section 2520.6(j) of the code shows that the only requirement is six months or more of continuous residence, without any reference to whether the tenant is a party to a landlord-tenant relationship.

Marti Weithman, a lawyer who represented Pitt, said the ruling was "incredibly important" for tenants residing in SRO affordable housing.

"The Appellate Term decision essentially rendered an entire section of the Rent Stabilization Code meaningless with regard to SRO tenants," she said.

The case is Branic International Realty Corp v. Phillip Pitt, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, No. 9453.

For Branic: Ronald Rosenberg, Lesley Reardon and Diana Attner of Rosenberg Calica & Birney.

For Pitt: Marti Weithman of the SRO Law Project; Jim Provost of Manhattan Legal Services.