Housing court data release must balance privacy with accessibility, advocates say

Tenant advocates recently learned that the state is preparing to make housing court data available, and they have been trying unsuccessfully to weigh in on how the information will be handled. 

The Housing Data Coalition says it wants to ensure the state Office of Court Administration shares the information in such a way that balances privacy concerns with improving access to public records.

OCA once sold housing court data but stopped amid an outcry about landlords using the information to automatically refuse tenants with any housing court history. Nonetheless, the data coalition says a thoughtful process for making the data available could lead to a greater understanding of displacement and the housing crunch. In fact, the coalition learned of the state’s plans while trying to access such information to glean why only 20,000 executed evictions result from the roughly 200,000 cases filed annually in city housing courts. 

"If the data are aggregated to a high enough geography and anonymized enough, there’s a public good out of the data becoming available," said Oksana Mironova, who is part of the Housing Data Coalition focused on using data to promote housing justice.

OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen did not respond to questions about the release of housing court data.

Mironova, a housing policy analyst at the nonprofit Community Service Society, requested more detailed eviction data in July 2018 through a process available to researchers. In August 2018, Mironova said she received a denial that mentioned OCA expected to make eviction data available in the second half of 2019.

In January, the Housing Data Coalition and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sent a letter to the state’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore asking that OCA publish a limited data feed of court filings, judgments and warrant issuances on the state’s open data portal. 

The coalition never received a written reply, according to Emily Goldman, director of the civic innovation fellowship at BetaNYC, a tech-focused civic group that is a coalition member. Goldman said she had a few "very productive" conversations with OCA staff, but a discussed meeting never materialized. 

OCA, according to Chalfen, and Brewer both said they would welcome a discussion with one another on the subject. 

The Housing Data Coalition and other tenant advocacy groups currently have access to a stream of the roughly 20,000 annually executed eviction warrants published by the city’s Department of Investigation. But they would like a better sense of patterns in the 200,000 housing court cases filed annually, including whether they are clustered in certain neighborhoods or building types, what kinds of disputes or sums of money prompt legal action, as well as a look at so-called serial lawsuit filers. 

Excluding cases sealed for privacy purposes, all filings tied to housing court cases over the past three to four years can be accessed in the clerks’ offices in each borough’s housing court, according to Chalfen. But pulling each case individually is a relatively onerous process for those seeking a big-picture overview.

The research tool LexisNexis currently dispatches people to the clerks’ offices to manually collect case information, which is then sold to tenant-screening bureaus that market it to landlords, according to James Fishman, who represents tenants.

But the state recently passed a law prohibiting owners from rejecting prospective tenants based solely on screening reports. The legislation came after years of complaints about renters being "blacklisted" — or denied housing because they were engaged in legal action. Some renters have even reported winding up on tenant screening reports due to filing errors or for taking a negligent landlord to court.

As a precaution to keep the data from being used for similar reasons, the Housing Data Coalition says OCA should aggregate its data in a way that avoids names and apartment numbers, and take steps to ensure individuals in smaller buildings cannot be easily identified.

Tenant advocates are unfairly seeking to act as gatekeepers, according to Mitch Posilkin, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners of rent-regulated apartments. He said advocates are asking that the data be tailored to their needs, but recently pushed for landlords to be barred from using the same information for things like assessing prospective tenants. 

"It’s really remarkable and amazingly hypocritical for the tenant advocates to want to be able to access this data for their purposes, for their political purposes, while precluding owners from having meaningful access to the same data," Posilkin said. "A landlord is unable to access the names in that data streams in order to make decisions about whether or not someone should be able to rent an apartment in their building."

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