How to Handle Housing Court Without a Lawyer

In 2014, I spent six months in and out of Manhattan Housing Court defending my apartment in Chinatown on a holdover case (one not related to nonpayment). Ultimately, I was able to have the case dismissed.

I did it without legal representation, “pro se”—much like the vast majority of tenants must do when legal charges are brought against them, and unlike the vast majority of landlords. In New York City’s housing courts, over 90 percent of tenants don’t have attorneys, while 90 percent of landlords do.

But should you find yourself served with court papers, you are nowhere near alone. The New York Times wrote of a judge in Brooklyn Housing Court who sees “30 to 40 cases compete for time on her docket every day.” Most of those tenants will show up alone, just like you.

Housing Court is a strange world, and I Googled incessantly every day looking for stories that would help me confidently prepare, and not be confronted with just more confusing, cold legal language. If you’re involved in a holdover case—such as the landlord claiming your apartment is not your primary residence, or that you’ve created a nuisance—this will be especially relevant. Here are the biggest lessons I learned that helped me prepare for the experience.

1. Learn the language. If you’re familiar with basic legal terms, you’ll be more informed and understand the lingo that’s likely to be used when your case is heard. “Pro se” means you’re representing yourself, for example. “Affidavit” is paperwork that verifies that you were served with court papers. A case that’s dismissed “without prejudice” can be brought again in the future; “with prejudice” means it can’t. You can learn more terms at the Web site, which has a tenants’ guide in its Housing Court section.

2. Start with how you were served with paperwork. There are specific rules that outline how you must be legally given the papers that summon you to court. If any of these were not followed, and you provide evidence for this, then your case can be thrown out just on that basis. That’s how my case was ultimately dismissed. Page 15 of the Housing Court tenants’ guide has more details. 

3. Use online resources to learn laws and see how cases like yours were won. You can go to sites like to see the actual codes that dictate housing laws (Section 7 of the New York State Real Property law), or Findlaw’s case-law section to search for previous landlord-tenant cases in the city. The goal is to see how laws in the city have been previously translated and treated in similar cases as yours, and convince a judge that those same principles apply in your situation. By 2017, all of Harvard Law School’s national case law archives will be available online for free, too, which means everyday citizens have even more of an ability to knowledgeably cite historical judgments and apply them to their own cases.

4. Use the other free resources available to you. Met Council’s free housing hotline is one fantastic resource, but we also offer a free in-person clinic for your questions every Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. Housing Court Answers is another great way to get advice, either by telephone or at their tables in the courthouse, but prepare for a wait. Take thorough notes on every word of advice you get, because the details and legal language can be hard to follow and remember—but it’s those little details that can make the biggest difference in the outcome. 

5. Try to look like a lawyer. Everyone always tells you to dress neatly for court, but take a step further and dress like a lawyer. Think of what you’d wear to a job interview or an important business meeting, and show up in that. You’ll feel more confident in the courthouse, be perceived differently in others’ first impressions, and be treated more respectfully.

6. Keep your cell phone off. Bring a book instead. Once you find your case written on the board outside the Housing Part, take a seat on the bench in the room and don’t talk or pull out your phone. Not even if you see others doing it. It might be hours before your case is heard, and passing the time with a lit-up screen is likely to get you publicly scolded by court employees. Just pull out a book to pass the time.

7. Learn the “adjourn.” I never actually met my landlord’s attorney in person, because he sent a colleague in his stead to adjourn nearly all of the cases. Indeed, the petitioner (who files the case) or the respondent (the other party) can reschedule, or “adjourn,” a court date if the suggested one doesn’t work for them, and this rescheduling can happen over and over again. It’s just painful for the respondent because you can spend many hours waiting in court, only to meet a lawyer who’s there only to request an adjournment. That means you have to come back on the later date and start it over again. If you’re representing yourself, this can get tedious, especially when you must miss work.

8. Don’t take “tenant friendly” too literally. Yes, judges often rule in favor of tenants because there is justice in the world, and they may have real human empathy for someone unfairly losing their home. But this by no means creates a “friendly,” amiable environment. In my experience, court clerks and other employees often come off as abrasive, exasperated, and unhelpful in responding to questions, and you will likely have many. Psychologically, this feels belittling, especially when you see the friendliness between them and the attorneys who know them well. Remember, attorneys who specialize in this area are in the courthouse just about every day. Don’t take cold attitudes or short tempers personally; the courts are very, very busy.

9. Don’t be intimidated. The paperwork from an opposing attorney is scary—opening a new envelope addressed from them or finding papers plastered to your front door is heart-racing, no matter your experience. But remember that lawyers are busy people, and that means they can make mistakes. By doing my own online research using the above resources, I found that my landlord’s attorney had made several errors in their paperwork that could get their case tossed out. I also had handy a number of city codes and previous court cases that demonstrated that the accusations against me weren’t legally founded. Knowledge is power here. You need not have passed the bar exam to understand your legal rights.

10. Don’t give up. I spoke to many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who saw how my court battle was eating so much of my time and emotions, and they often told me that my apartment wasn’t ultimately worth the cost. But when you value your home and your stability, or can’t afford to move, it may just pay off in the end to fight.

There is a long history of landlords bringing charges unfairly against tenants and making unfounded, illegal threats of eviction. It’s on us to end those patterns and insist on justice. Know your rights.


Angela Pham is a volunteer for Met Council’s housing hotline.