January 23, 2012
Brooklyn tenants' lawyers form new bar group
NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Breaking ranks with what they call the "landlord-dominated" housing-court bar in Brooklyn, more than 60 tenant-side attorneys have banded together to form a new bar group dedicated to advocating for tenant-friendly legal and practical reforms in one of the city's busiest housing courts.
Last week, the attorneys announced the official launch of the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network, which includes lawyers from private firms and each of the major legal-aid organizations operating in Brooklyn, according to a statement from the group and its two co-chairs, Karen Bacdayan of Legal Services NYC and Michael Weisberg of South Brooklyn Legal Services Inc.
The group is presenting itself as a counterpoint to the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, one of the few bar groups in New York City dedicated solely to housing-court issues. While the KCHCBA counts both tenant- and landlord-side attorneys among its members, some tenant-side attorneys felt their voices were being drowned out, according to Bacdayan.
"The landlord's bar has a very big presence," Bacdayan said. "Until now, while our work is very meaningful, we haven't meaningfully organized as an association of tenant lawyers."
Some tenant-side lawyers have been meeting privately and informally to discuss tenant-specific legal concerns since 2003, Weisberg said. They ultimately decided to break away and form a separate group, which met formally for the first time in December.
High on the group's agenda is the issue of lawyers' access to housing-court judges and to the committee that recommends judicial nominees to serve a five-year term rotating among the city's five housing courts. The group also plans to invite Brooklyn Housing Court Supervising Judge John Lansden to address them and speak to their specific concerns, Bacdayan said.
The housing court in Brooklyn was the subject of a scathing report released in December by Make the Road New York, a nonprofit Latino and working-class advocacy group. In that report, Make the Road slammed the housing court's "aging" and "substandard" facilities, as well as its confusing layout and inadequate services for poor or non-English-speaking tenant litigants.
Moving the court to a new facility is at the top of the tenant bar group's agenda, according to Bacdayan. And it's one issue where they can find common ground with attorneys who represent landlords, she added.
In New York City, Brooklyn's housing court is second only to the Bronx in the volume of legal filings it sees each year -- more than 70,000 in 2010, according to New York City Courts Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher.
As at housing courts across the city, up to 98 percent of tenant litigants show up without any kind of legal representation -- often because they lack either the funds to pay for an attorney or are unfamiliar with the legal process, Fisher said.
This discrepancy was one of the motivations for the new group, according to Bacdayan -- because landlords are more frequently represented than tenants during court proceedings, she said, their attorneys spend more time in housing court, mingling with judges on a daily basis and gaining a familiarity that often eludes tenant advocates.
"The sense is that the landlord's bar has a lot of influence over this process," she said.
'A LOT IN COMMON'
Michael Rosenthal, KCHCBA president for the past 11 years and an attorney with Rappaport Hertz Cherson & Rosenthal, said that his group has never set out to represent one side or the other of the housing-court bar, but rather "pro-treatment of both attorneys and litigants." While KCHCBA meetings tend to attract more landlord-focused attorneys than tenant-focused, he said, he thought the influence each side exerted on the judicial process was fairly equal, if not tilted slightly toward tenants.
In general, he said, Kings County is known for its collegial housing-court bar, despite the shortcomings in the court's infrastructure.
"I think that on the issues that have to do with the treatment of people and the facilities, we'll have a lot in common," Rosenthal said.
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