If you owe back rent, you can't spend it. You need to put it in an escrow account at a local bank. If you can't get to a bank (the ideal and legally required option), at least keep it in a safe place.
Bring Facts, Documents and a Check for Back-Rent to Court
When you come to court to fight your eviction, you need to have some basic things.
First, you will need documents that show there is an actual problem with your apartment. Maybe its unhealthy, because there is mold, broken windows, rats, fleas, roaches, a lack of heat (in winter) or air conditioning (in winter). A report from the Department of Health wouldn't hurt, either.
Second, you will need to bring a check for all the back-rent you owe.
Try to Work Your Problems Out with the Landlord
You will have the chance to work your problems out with the landlord. Every case goes through calendar-call. This is just like attendance or roll-call when you were in school. Everybody goes out into the hallway in groups, and they meet with their landlords. You have the ability to work out an arrangement with the landlord, and to put the terms of your deal down on paper. If you can work out a deal with your landlord on paper, where he promises to fix the problems, in exchange for you giving him the back-rent, that's great. You will have solved your problem and saved money on attorney fees.
If your landlord is unreasonable, you will have to go to the next level.
Request a Habitability Hearing/Marini Hearing
If you can't work things out with your landlord, you will then go to the court clerk and tell him/her that you want a habitability hearing.
The judge will then do two things.
First, he will ask you if you have the ability to pay all the back rent. If you do, he will direct you to pay this with the court clerk if you haven't done this alread. He will usually give you until the end of the day to do this.
Second, he will then see if you have a genuine habitability issue, or if you are just stalling and/or wasting his and the court's time. Don't bring a habitability trial if you don't really have one. Only genuine liveability/habitability issues should be heard by the court. If you have stains on your carpet, that's a cosmetic issue, and can't be litigated. However, if you have giant rats crawling around your baby's bedroom, that's a serious issue. Make sure you know the difference between something that impacts your HEALTH and SAFETY vs something that impacts your COMFORT.
If the Judge grants you a Habitability or Marini Hearing (named after the case), you will generally get a postponement. During this time, you are advised to hire or consult an attorney, get witnesses to commit to testify for you, and get as much evidence as you can. If the Judge finds in your favor, you may get an abatement, which is a refund for a certain amount of rent you owe. That said, abatements are not frequently given, and only in the most extreme circumstances.
Don't Forget About Quiet Enjoyment
Another thing that Judges look at in habitability hearings is something called "quiet enjoyment." Sometimes, landlords enter tenants' apartments without notice, take things, refuse to keep other tenants within same building quiet (because they play loud music), or because the landlord harasses the tenant repeatedly. If this is the case, one may also be able to address these issues in a hearing. That said, one can only bring these up on the defense, once the Notice of Eviction and court date is filed by the Landlord. If you want to pre-emptively go on the offense and sue the landlord for this, you will have to go to the Special Civil section yourself and file a complaint in the small claims section. If you do this, you will not have to wait for an Eviction complaint against you, which always has the chance of hurting your credit rating.
Best To Not Even Get Here
If you really have a problem with Habitability and Quiet Enjoyment, you're best bet is to seize the initiative and file a complaint in the small claims section of the Special Civil Division.
If your landlord files an eviction complaint against you, this may very well show up on your credit report. This can hurt you when you go get a new apartment. It may be on there for a very long time, even if the landlord loses the court case.
To avoid this, seize the initiative and file the habitability/quiet enjoyment case before it even gets to this level. If you win, you could very well get the repairs you seek, the peace of mind you deserve, and do so without any threat to your credit rating.
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