Giving Tenants an Opportunity to be Heard- The Argument for a Housing Court

Because many low income tenants’ rights are neglected when housing disputes arise, a landlord-tenant tribunal could help tenants advocate for themselves in a cheaper and less time-consuming manner compared to the regular court system.

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One of the main problems many low income housing tenants face is their inability to have their bond returned upon vacating a residential property. This problem is exacerbated by the nominal recourse or remedies available to such tenants for settling their disputes. Landlords almost always have the upper hand in such situations.  Other than the regular court system, there is no accessible dispute resolution process for landlord and tenants. This article proposes the creation of a housing court to resolve disputes of tenants residing in low income housing that may not receive a fair deal through the regular court system.

Landlord-tenant disputes are a common occurrence that, if not resolved, can result in timely and expensive proceedings, generally to the detriment of the tenant. Tenants who reside in low income housing are especially at risk due to a lack of sufficient income, resources, or education to properly advocate for themselves in such a dispute. Generally, landlords hold the bargaining power as owners or property managers, giving them an upper hand over tenants who may be at risk of losing their home. The creation of a housing court that handles all residential housing-related disputes is a necessary solution to resolve tenants’ current inability to effectively exercise their rights.

Usually, landlords are favored by the market as a result of (1) high demand for low income housing and (2) regulations that fail to penalize a landlord for keeping a bond, even if the landlord lacks a valid reason to do so under the tenancy arrangement. Because many decision and policy makers are landlords themselves, the needs of low income tenants are not a priority and are rarely, if ever, addressed. Currently, low income tenants have limited means of disputing a wrongfully withheld bond.

When a housing dispute arises, the matter must normally be taken to the district court, which is costly and time consuming for tenants. Often hiring a lawyer is an added expense that most low income tenants view as inaccessible. As a result, tenants are powerless in exercising their rights and may be subject to a landlord’s abuse of the system.

One solution to affording low income tenants greater rights is to establish a landlord-tenant tribunal or housing court that provides a dispute resolution process specifically for housing-related issues. Similar to a small claims court, a housing court would be a place where landlords and tenants could seek relief without the need for an attorney to represent them, thus providing greater access to tenants than the current court system and eliminating legal jargon and unnecessary litigation.

The housing court would handle solely housing disputes providing greater efficiency than the regular court system and reducing costs and time spent by tenants pursuing claims. It would also be accessible to anyone with a residential lease agreement (which would ideally require an actual signed lease between the landlord and tenant prior to the tenant’s occupancy). Further, properties disputed in the land court would be required to have proper titles and any dispute over tenancies on illegal settlements or customary land would be addressed by the regular court system in order to maintain the housing court’s efficiency. (Generally customary tenancies have customary issues so any disputes of this sort should be handled by the normal court process.)

Low income tenants in particular would benefit from a housing court because such tenants are least likely to utilize the normal court system as it is timely and expensive. Making the housing court an optional tribunal would allow low income tenants to assert their rights while also permitting upmarket property disputes to be handled through the regular court process. Because the housing court would be highly focused on certain types of disputes, it would afford tenants quicker resolutions in a less formal setting than the regular court.

One concern with creating a landlord-tenant tribunal is that landlords, who generally have more power than tenants, would abuse the court by using it to obtain unpaid rent from tenants. Because of the efficiency of a potential housing court with lower costs than the regular court, tenants may be at risk of getting a quicker and easier judgment against them for unpaid rent. However, without a housing court, tenants are at the same risk of getting a judgment against them for unpaid rent if they are unable to hire an attorney to defend them in the regular court system. Therefore a housing court would still allow tenants the opportunity to be heard, something they might not have in the regular court system that handles more than just housing disputes.

Because many low income tenants’ rights are neglected when housing disputes arise, a landlord-tenant tribunal could help tenants advocate for themselves in a cheaper and less time-consuming manner compared to the regular court system. Although creation of a housing court presents the risk of landlords using such a court to collect unpaid rent from low income tenants, the benefit of having a convenient and efficient process for handling low income tenant housing disputes outweighs the risk of landlords using the housing court for their sole advantage.

What do you think? Do you agree with this proposal? If not, why? Comment below.

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