Finding an affordable apartment in New York City is serious business—so serious that tenant lawyer Steven De Castro grossed about $200,000 in contingency fees last year representing clients in rent-stabilized apartments. And that doesn’t include a $664,000 contingency-fee judgment he finally collected, which he had recovered a few years earlier.
De Castro doesn’t take nonpayment cases in which the tenant is behind on the rent. His work focuses on tenants in rent-stabilized apartments who think their landlord is overcharging them and on tenants facing eviction because, according to De Castro, the landlord wants to find a new tenant and get around the city’s rent-stabilization ordinance.
A former ACORN organizer and Legal Aid Society paralegal who’s still active in civil rights causes, De Castro, who turns 45 this month, has long sported a ponytail. He grew up in Staten Island and now lives in Queens in a rent-stabilized apartment.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world for a tenant lawyer to get an apartment in New York City,” De Castro says. “I had to find a landlord who doesn’t have the Internet!”
Among the New York housing court bar, De Castro is seen as a bit eccentric, but not in a bad way.
“He has an intriguing style and also a unique energy level, the way he carries himself,” says Lucas A. Ferrara, a partner with New York’s Newman Ferrara who represents landlords. “He’s extremely aggressive and comes up with innovative theories. He truly believes in what he’s presenting to the court—even if he’s wrong.”
In eviction cases De Castro’s clients pay $300 an hour. He also has one associate who usually handles court appearances. She bills at $190 an hour.
“In New York City the average unstabilized rent is $2,500 a month,” De Castro says, “so for stopping an eviction, it’s worth it for them to pay by the hour.”
De Castro handles other matters that require more time on a contingency-fee basis. According to him, many rent-subsidized leases include language promising that, if lawsuits arise, the other side pays the prevailing party’s legal fees.
One De Castro client, cat lover Siiri Marvits, has lived in the same one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in the West Village since 1962. She pays $600 a month rent. Five years ago her landlord started eviction proceedings on the basis that her two cats violated a no-pets clause in the lease.
“She loves the cats and thinks that they are paying my legal fees because she played the lottery with the cats’ license number and won,” says De Castro, adding that her luck may have run out with the lottery, and he’s now handling the case on a contingency-fee basis.
New York City’s pet law prevents landlords from enforcing a no-pets clause if a tenant openly had pets in the apartment for at least three months. According to De Castro, the woman’s landlord argued the cats hid under furniture when visitors came, so the pets were not kept openly. De Castro maintained cat food bowls and litter boxes were in plain sight.
The housing court found in Marvits’ favor, but denied De Castro’s motion for $50,000 in legal fees. De Castro is appealing; he estimates he’s put about 200 hours into her case.
“I told her we were going to keep going until the landlord pays the bill.”
When business is slow—in the past year, according to De Castro, the credit crunch hit New York landlords so they don’t have as much cash to start evictions—he works on marketing his law firm. Besides community outreach with tenant rights groups, you can find him on YouTube talking about things like landlord research, property repairs and bed bugs, or commenting on cases on Court TV.
And he has issued a DVD, How to Fight a Housing Court Case. It’s handed out at city council and borough president offices, and can be checked out at the New York Public Library.
“You have to be marketing yourself every day,” De Castro says. In tenant law, “it’s not necessarily true that one client leads to another, as it often does in other areas.”