First come the metal detectors, swiftly checking the bags and bodies of everyone who enters 141 Livingston Street. Then there are the elevators, crammed with angry tenants, hostile landlords, tired attorneys, and fiery advocates all impatiently trying to get to the building’s 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th floors. Welcome to housing court, Brooklyn-style.
Doors to the court’s 14 chambers open at 9:30, but after signing in, both tenants and landlords are told to sit and wait. Some, clearly nervous, fidget on the uncomfortable hardwood benches. Others stay busy, tending children or sorting their papers: bills, receipts, legal documents, or photos of moldy walls, pest infestation, or holey floors. A court officer shushes talkers, telling them that they must remain silent. She also warns everyone in the room that cell phones must be turned off; violators, she continues, will be promptly ejected and forced to wait in the hallway until their case is called.
At 10:00 Judge John Henry Stanley enters the courtroom. I’ve been told that he’s the best Brooklyn Housing Court has to offer, respectful and courteous to all who come before him. He’s definitely tried to spruce the space up, hanging more than a half-dozen brightly colored tapestries on the room’s white walls. Like other judges, he sits beneath an In God We Trust plaque and I can’t help wondering if this is meant to comfort those at risk of losing their homes.
Before starting, Stanley looks around, scanning the scene and taking in the more than 30 people who have assembled: among them a young woman in a sari cooing in Urdu to calm her crying son; an elderly African American clinging to her walker; a middle aged Latino in an MTA uniform, his badge and shield hung prominently around his neck; a white 20-something hipster.
He then calls case number one, that of a heavy-set black female who has fallen behind in rent. “This is a nonpayment case,” Judge Stanley begins. “You owed $7,163 as of June 1. I need to know if you have all this money.” The tenant hands the judge a letter from a charity, promising to pay $5,000 toward the arrears. “This is enough for me to give you one last chance, since this letter shows that you’re getting the money together. You now have a great job so I want to give you more time. This could be the end of the case, but don’t be under any illusion that you can come back to court and get an additional week or two. You must pay the full amount within three weeks, by June 28. Get that done and we’ll all be happy.”
Hour after hour passes, the judge listening to a parade of misery. “One of my jobs,” he tells an undocumented woman whose husband has left her with two young children and no financial support, “is to give bad news. You have not been able to get current in your rent. We are delaying the inevitable by giving you more time. You will have to leave this apartment if you cannot pay for it.”
Each day in housing court, the specter of eviction and homelessness looms large.
According to Housing Court Answers, a citywide group that assists pro se tenants and building owners in navigating the seven housing courts located throughout the five boroughs, the number of people who lose apartments is difficult to track. Last year, 328 evictions took place in Brooklyn. This means that a City Marshal came to the dwelling, compiled a list of items in the unit, and then moved everything to a storage facility. Yes, it’s a small number, but don’t cheer just yet. Jenny Laurie, Assistant Director of Housing Court Answers, says that an additional 7,313 “possessions” were ordered in Kings County, meaning that a Marshal changed the locks or padlocked a Brooklyn apartment 7,313 times in 2009. If the tenant paid the arrears—as well as the landlord and marshal fees, an additional $1,500–$2,000—they were let back in. If not, they likely lost everything—pets, medication, clothing, documents, and personal effects. “We don’t know how many tenants actually end up homeless,” Laurie wrote in an e-mail. “Studies have shown that most homeless families come into the shelter system from a relative’s home. After having been evicted from an apartment, they move in with family members. They then get kicked out of the family house because of overcrowding-related issues.”
“People, tenants, get lost in the shuffle,” Karen May Bacdayan, Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Services for New York-Brooklyn Branch [LSNY-BB] agrees. “Not all judges are interested in hearing a tenant’s argument and they often try to force a settlement. This is fine if the tenant has a representative who understands the process, but most tenants do not.”
Indeed, a 2005 study by the New York County Lawyer’s Association found that 88 percent of tenants going into Housing Court lack representation; 97 percent of landlords, on the other hand, have counsel. The upshot, the report concluded, is that Housing Court often functions as a “one-sided eviction apparatus.” At the same time, advocates understand that even if everyone who wanted representation got it, it would not necessarily stem all evictions. That would require eradicating poverty and changing our for-profit housing system.
Attorney Fraidy Nachman of LSNY-BB drives this point home when she recalls a case in which there was nothing she could do to help a family remain domiciled. Her client, an unlicensed home health aid, was working off the books, caring for an elderly woman. “She owed some rent and the landlord sent her a Notice of Petition. She had gone to welfare to apply for an emergency grant to pay her arrears and everything was chugging along. Right before she was to receive this one-shot grant from welfare, the woman she cared for fell and had to go into a rehab facility. My client was suddenly jobless, could not get unemployment since she’d been working off the books, and welfare would no longer give her the grant because, without the job, she had lost her future ability to pay her monthly rent, which is something welfare requires. The welfare system does not want to pour money down a black hole, so they only pay arrears if it seems like the applicant won’t fall behind again. It was a heartbreaking case, but there was absolutely nothing I could do for her. I assume she and her teenaged son were evicted.”
Another core problem, say tenant advocates, is that renters often feel pressured to sign stipulations, contract-like legal agreements that they’ll pay arrears or move out by a certain date. Louise Seeley, Executive Director of Housing Court Answers, describes a typical scenario: “Someone comes into the courtroom, calls the tenant’s name, and asks him or her to step outside. No one tells the tenants that they don’t have to do this, that this is the landlord’s attorney.” Instead, she continues, the tenant goes into the hallway with this person and is asked to sign a document setting out a payment schedule or date by which the tenant must vacate the premises. In some cases, Seeley adds, the stipulation includes a requirement that the landlord make repairs in exchange for payment.
Again, advocates add a few words of caution. Despite what sounds like a quid pro quo, the presumed give-and-take between tenant and landlord is not ironclad.
Vinja Vujica, a Borough Assistant at Housing Court Answers, says that “despite a landlord saying that repair people will come in on a particular day to fix the apartment, there are no consequences if they fail to show up. Very rarely are fines issued, even though the court was established in 1972 to make sure that landlords keep apartments up to code.”
Throughout the Housing Court proceedings, the gentrification process is also on vivid display. In one case before Judge Stanley, a landlord is hoping to remove a tenant from a five-room apartment in Crown Heights, alleging that the tenant’s primary residence is in Charleston, South Carolina, not Brooklyn. For her part, the tenant states that she has lived in the Brooklyn unit for 34 years—rent, $570 a month—and merely owns a rental property down south. In another case, an 80-year-old man is accused of hoarding. Mountains of newspapers and other refuse, says the building owner, have created a fire hazard in the building.
“You can see the neighborhoods that are being gentrified by sitting in Housing Court,” Maria Muentes of Housing Court Answers matter-of-factly states. “Right now you see poor African Americans and people from the Caribbean being cleared out of Crown Heights and Flatbush so that owners can rent to wealthier people.”
Judge Stanley seems to take it all in stride. He listens carefully and patiently to each tenant and landlord, making sure that both understand their rights and obligations. Maybe that’s all he can do. Still, at the end of the day, Maria Muentes’s words keep replaying in my head: “The court is really just a landlord collection agency. It is less concerned with maintaining affordable housing than with making sure tenants pay their rent.