December 13, 2011
Coalition Begins in Shadow of Housing Court
LIVINGSTON STREET — On Wednesday, a group of seven non-profits will announce the formation of a coalition dedicated to the long-term reform of Brooklyn’s Housing Court system.
At Wednesday’s announcement, scheduled to take place at noon across the street from the Brooklyn Housing Court at Smith and Livingston streets, tenants are expected to be joined by Councilmember Letitia James, who will also speak.
The coalition will also release a report on the Housing Court. The report was compiled by community group Make the Road New York, which is a member of the coalition. This report will include recommendations for improving the Housing Court system in Brooklyn.
The coalition’s recommendations include ways to make the Housing Court system easier for tenants to maneuver, such as more seating, signs and interpretation services, as well as long-term recommendations, such as childcare, better access for people with disabilities and an improved court facility.
The coalition will also recommend the creation of a Code of Conduct for how the court staff should treat litigants and will demand that landlord attorneys not receive special treatment in the court.
Located at 141 Livingston St. in Downtown Brooklyn, the Housing Court takes up several floors of the Kings County Civil Court building. Entering litigants are funneled through winding security lines and metal detectors before waiting en masse for overcrowded elevators.
Upstairs, tenants, landlords and lawyers crowd the noisy hallways because courtrooms lack sufficient seating. Meanwhile court officers repeatedly send confused tenants out of courtrooms to recheck their case numbers and find the appropriate courtroom.
“It’s a maze with no instructions,” said Visnja Vujica, a coalition member and a housing advocate from Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a Brooklyn non-profit that assists low and middle-income residents with housing. “People walk in and they don’t really know where to go.”
The coalition’s short-term goals of more seating and signs as well as a more comprehensive interpretation service aim to reduce inexperienced tenants’ confusion, said Michael Grinthal, a housing court attorney at South Brooklyn Legal Services and a member of the coalition.
Tenants usually come to Housing Court either because they are asking their landlord to make repairs or because their landlord alleges that tenants have not paid rent. In some cases, a landlord brings a tenant to court to end a lease. Confused and frightened, tenants often are more likely to sign what their landlord’s attorney tells them to, sometimes mistaking landlords’ attorneys for court officers, Grinthal said.
Other concerns include a lack of childcare services. Until recent budget cuts, free childcare was available in some of the other boroughs and in 20 New York counties outside the city, according to Grinthal. Tenants with children in a courtroom feel pressured, he said.
“If your child’s crying, what are you going to do?” Grinthal said. “They’re going to sign anything.”
One of the coalition’s overarching long-term concerns is an imbalance of power between tenants and landlords. According to statistics cited in a 2005 New York County Lawyers’ Association report, 90 to 95 percent of New York City tenants were unrepresented by legal counsel in Housing Court while 87 percent of landlords were represented.
Tenants — often brought to court for unpaid rent — can’t always afford representation.
That disparity results in unrepresented tenants who are not equipped to defend themselves against experienced landlords’ attorneys, both Grinthal and Vujica said.
Susan Vargas, a coalition member and Bushwick tenant who has been in and out of court with her landlord since 2008, said in her experience, she saw a double standard for landlords and tenants in court.
“If you as a tenant don’t show, you can get evicted if the landlord brought the case,” Vargas said. “If you’re the one that brought the case then it’s dismissed against the landlord. That’s just not equitable.”
Since its formation, the coalition has been working to find allies in other organizations and within the court itself. The coalition met with John Lansden, the supervising judge of the Brooklyn Housing Court, on Nov. 7 and Fern Fisher, the deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts, on Nov. 23.
Currently the coalition includes Bushwick Housing Independence Project, Flatbush Development Corporation, Make the Road New York, the Fifth Avenue Committee, the Pratt Area Community Council, Neighbors Helping Neighbors and Housing Court Answers, as well as housing attorneys from Brooklyn legal aid offices. Other organizations may join the coalition by the time of Wednesday’s announcement.
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