A new mobile app allows tenants in New York City to sue their landlord for emergency repairs and other issues.

While eviction proceedings have been temporarily suspended in New York state, courts are still hearing emergency matters from tenants who aren’t getting repairs or are being harassed or locked out.

“We want renters across New York City to know that your landlord is required to make essential repairs to your home and building, even during a pandemic,” said Georges Clement, co-founder and acting executive director of JustFix.NYC, a tenant rights nonprofit that launched the online tool.

Tenants can report issues like a loss of cooking gas, an unusable toilet, no heat or hot water, or anything that threatens the health or safety of the household.

Also included in emergency actions are landlords who are harassing tenants, including illegally locking tenants out, interrupting or stopping essential services, like water or meeting heat standards, or using or threatening to use force.

“If your landlord is neglecting their obligation and endangering your health and safety, this enables you to take immediate legal action right from your home,” said Clement.

How to bring legal action

Typically, a tenant bringing an emergency proceeding would fill out documents in person during a visit to the court. But the tool makes the process completely virtual.

By answering questions about the tenant’s complaint, the site generates a document that begins a proceeding against the landlord. Tenants can then electronically sign the document. Once the case is approved as an emergency case, it comes before a judge in a virtual online setting, potentially within a few days.

“There is a widened space for emergency repairs and harassment hearings right now, with evictions halted,” said Johanna Santos Bassetti, director of product at JustFix.NYC.

She said the digital submission process has been in the works for years, but the health crisis moved it along.

“We’re hoping this digital submission process will remain after the crisis,” Bassetti said.

While the tool is only available for New York City residents, Clement said the nonprofit is connecting with similar organizations across the country to find ways to support tenants beyond the city.

Housing advocates say that independent of a tenant’s ability to pay rent, they should know and exercise their rights regarding repairs.

“There is an eviction moratorium that protects any tenant from being evicted regardless of if they can pay May rent or not,” said Clement.

Separately, he said, there is a housing maintenance code that guarantees safe and healthy housing for anyone that lives in New York.

“People should know they are not threatening their tenancy if they try to enforce their rights with regard to the maintenance of their home,” he said.

Getting help with an emergency repair

Mabel Perez lives in a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan along with members from four generations of her family, including her grandmother, mother and two young children. Since the family began staying home, a leak has sprung under the kitchen sink, significant enough that buckets fill each time they use it.

This kind of simple repair would typically be fixed in a day or so. But her building is only handling emergency repairs now.

When she called her landlord to report the problem, she was told the issue did not constitute an emergency and would not be repaired.

“We’re all in quarantine and doing our best,” said Perez. “We don’t order in, we don’t go out for food. We spend a lot of time preparing food and cleaning up. I was surprised when the housing worker’s suggestion was, don’t use the sink. I don’t understand how that is even possible right now.”

Using the app, she brought an emergency action against her landlord to make repairs.

While the case is pending, her family continues to live with the mess and sloppy wet floor. Perez is concerned the water will damage the wood cabinets, create a mold problem or leak to the apartment below.

She is looking forward to the opportunity for a virtual review of her case, particularly because, since she will be home, she can show the judge the damage during the video conference.

“The virtual idea is great,” she said. “We can show them the problem. If they can see it they will not be as dismissive. They can see the reality of how we are living.”