Court of No Return
If you visit the website of the Brooklyn Housing Court, you’ll read that the courthouse aims “to serve the County in an efficient, expedient, and thoughtful manner.” What’s more, the site promises that “both judicial and non-judicial personnel are committed to providing the highest quality of service possible to ensure that landlords and tenants, whether represented by an attorney or not, receive the justice and fair enforcement of the law that every person deserves.”
By all accounts, Brooklyn’s Housing Court is the worst run, most overcrowded, and chaotic landlord-tenant court in the five boroughs, and horrendous conditions have prompted pro-tenant attorneys and community-based social justice organizations to mobilize to improve its functioning. The Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network—a group of 75 attorneys—has been meeting monthly, says co-facilitator Karen Bacdayan of Legal Services for New York City-Brooklyn Branch, “to formulate strategies about how to make justice more accessible to everyone.”
Similarly, Brooklyn Tenants United (BTU)—a coalition of citywide and neighborhood groups including Housing Court Answers, Make the Road New York (www.maketheroad.org), Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and the Pratt Area Community Council—is working to address the many problems tenants face when they attempt to forestall an eviction or get needed repairs. A Make the Road New York report, “Home Court Advantage: How Landlords Are Winning and Tenants are Losing in Brooklyn Housing Court,” released in December 2011, spotlights inadequacies in interpreter services, the lack of available information about what happens where, and severe congestion.
Indeed, attorneys, organizers, and tenants agree that the lack of space is a key issue. The city began renting the privately-owned courthouse—built as an office tower—at 141 Livingston Street in November 1973. Although the details of the rental agreement are not widely known, everyone agrees that the building is a nightmare. In addition, the fact that the city is paying rent to landlord David Bistricer, called one of Brooklyn’s “worst slumlords” by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, has raised numerous red flags. Alas, that he holds the lease on Housing Court is an all too symbolic statement.
If the name Bistricer rings a bell, it’s likely because he also owns Flatbush Gardens, a 59-building monolith cited by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for a whopping 2,604 housing code violations in March 2012. The atrocious conditions raise an obvious question: Why has the city leased a building from one of the city’s most repugnant landlords for 39 years?
“The other borough Housing Courts are located in buildings owned by the city,” explains Honorable Fern Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge of the NYC Courts. “The city is looking into renting another space in Brooklyn when the current lease at 141 Livingston expires in 2014 but it’s not easy to find a stand-alone building that can work. In addition, many landlords don’t want to rent to Housing Court because of the perception that it is poor people of color who use the space.”
And it’s not just the perception. Housing Court brings the reality of social class into sharp focus and is a showcase for the realities of urban poverty. It’s a busy place. Last year, the court’s 15 judges handled 73,792 cases, the majority of them for non-payment of rent.
“More and more people are facing crises because of the economic downturn,” Judge Fisher continues. “People are having trouble paying their rent which is a challenge not just for the court but for social services and for small landlords who are facing foreclosure.”
It doesn’t take a financial wizard to understand why this is happening: According to recent census figures, the borough’s median household income is $41,304 while the average rent is $2,322. Furthermore, a June account from the Coalition for the Homeless reports a record 43,000 New Yorkers, including 17,000 children, in the shelter system.
Housing Court Answers [www.cwtfhc.org] maintains information tables in each borough courthouse to help tenants who are unrepresented by counsel—estimated to be between 95 and 98 percent of the total—fill out necessary paperwork. On a typical day, advocate Kayla Schwarz reports, three staff members see between 50 and 60 Brooklyn tenants and help them fill out Orders to Show Cause, forms that ask the Court to give them more time to pay their arrears.
While Orders are often granted, giving the tenant several more weeks to pay up, Lori Boozer, Hotline Coordinator at Housing Court Answers, cautions that the underlying issue of indigence is never addressed. “The court does not make room for people’s situations,” she says. “They simply tell you that you have X amount of time to pay or you will face eviction.”
The litany of misery is heartbreaking—and often enraging—and Boozer and her colleagues listen attentively and do what they can to buy time. As they sit at the table they hear story after story:
* There’s Marta, a 68-year-old blind widow who receives $771 a month in Supplemental Security Income, but whose rent, $943, is $172 more than she collects. She needs more time, she tells Schwarz, to get welfare to pay her arrears and ask family and friends to contribute to her ongoing support so that she can remain independent;
* There’s Norma who received an eviction notice from the NYC Housing Authority because she missed a mandatory meeting on May 20. “Look,” she says, “the envelope was postmarked May 24. I didn’t even know about the meeting until a week after it was supposed to have happened.”
* And there’s Hector, a uniformed MTA employee who fell behind in his rent when he became ill and needs more time to withdraw $3300—the amount he owes his landlord—from his pension fund.
“The rents are so out of whack with people’s income, and there are so few social programs to help,” says Schwarz, her frustration evident. “You can no longer get on a waiting list for the Section 8 rent subsidy program. The list has been closed for years. People who work full-time for $10 an hour simply can’t pay their rent. There used to be programs called Fixed, Child, and Work Advantage that helped people, but they ended in February. Many poor people are now back at square one, unable to afford their rents and forced to go into shelters after they get evicted.”
Maria Muentes, the court supervisor at Housing Court Answers, is also exasperated and notes that the problems affecting the poor need real attention, not band-aid fixes. “Housing Court originally came about to address housing maintenance issues and force landlords to make repairs. When a tenant comes to court and describes violations, no matter how bad they are, the landlord faces virtually no consequences for the lack of upkeep. Meanwhile, since the court has become more concerned with collecting rents than in making housing habitable, the stakes are a lot higher for tenants than they are for landlords. Tenants stand to lose their homes, a severe consequence for having the inability to pay rent. It’s like the punishment for being poor is homelessness. The court treats poverty as if it is not its problem.”
Muentes calls the court “inhumane” and describes unresponsive clerks who refuse to explain procedures to confused tenants. “The office is small and everything is so urgent in Brooklyn,” she continues. “Things are not equal in the boroughs. Brooklyn is so much more cramped. Tensions are high and tenants get short shrift from staff and overwhelmed pro se attorneys who are there to give advice but can’t represent anyone. In Manhattan when tenants have to answer papers they wait on line for no more than 10 minutes. In Brooklyn tenants sit for hours and hours in a dirty, crowded office. Space sounds like an unimportant thing, a luxury, but when you don’t have enough it impacts morale and makes everyone feel pressed and hostile.”
Hilary Klein, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, shares her colleagues’ frustrations but notes that as a result of BTU’s report, several small changes have been made to improve court functioning. Several forms have been updated and translated into Spanish; new signs about procedures have been posted; and elderly and disabled tenants can now access telephone interpretation services in languages other than Spanish. At the same time, larger issues—most landlords have attorneys, speak English fluently, and are familiar with judicial processes—remain unchanged. “The fact that there are so many slumlords in New York is appalling,” Klein adds. “The lack of justice for tenants in Housing Court comes from so many places. There are so many interrelated systems, from the eviction laws to the ways rents are regulated. Most landlords are powerful and wealthy. They donate to legislators and have a lot of power in New York City and New York State. BTU’s Housing Court campaign captures all the injustices that are happening to people of color and low-income individuals. A horrible Housing Court aggravates these conditions. No one wants Housing Court to be a place of injustice, but whether it’s because of a lack of political will or a lack of resources, it has evolved into a terrible place.”
Changing this will surely be an uphill battle, but as Saul Alinsky once wrote, “If people don’t think they have the power to solve their problems, they won’t even think about how to solve them.” David Bistricer and the City of New York have been put on notice: Brooklyn tenants and the people who advocate on their behalf are using their power to demand housing justice. It’s been a long time coming.