February 8, 2012
Fighting Landlords’ ‘Home Court Advantage’
In 2011, Make the Road New York spent three quarters of the year documenting the conditions of Brooklyn’s housing court. The culmination of their findings became the report, “Home Court Advantage” whose release coincided with a rally on the court house steps that was attended by several other ANHD members, including Fifth Avenue Committee, Flatbush Development Corporation, , Housing Court Answers, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and Pratt Area Community Council.
During the rally, Council Members Jumaane Williams and Letitia James led chants of “We want dignity!” that spurred great satisfaction among the tenants present because it has been a dominant void in the culture of the court. Indeed, for a long time, Brooklyn’s housing court has been characterized by tenants and their lawyers as a forum that unjustly gives landlords a “home court advantage.” Tens of thousands of tenants who find themselves as defendants in overly aggressive and often meritless eviction proceedings report being denied both justice and dignity.
According to the report, the court denies dignity and justice through inadequate services including: packed lobbies that serve as makeshift deliberation rooms with little, if any, respect for the privacy for tenants and lawyers; voluminous dockets that quietly persuade judges to default cases against tenants who are tardy although not landlords who arrive late; and the court’s lack of daily interpretation and translation services for English as a Second Language (ESL) tenants who constitute a bulk of court participants. Collectively, these problems drive BTU’s claim that Brooklyn housing court greatly favors landlords.
Furthermore, the report lists the five ways that tenant and landlord disputes are entered into court: two options for landlords (cases of non-payment or evictions not regarding rent) and three for tenants (cases of neglected repairs, illegal evictions, or a building wide class action). It also details that the disparity of court initiated action. For every one case a tenant filed against a landlord in the first 3 months of last year, ten cases against tenants were filed by landlords. Furthermore, about 80% of tenants enter trial without legal representation whereas 90% of landlords have a lawyer.
"Our overall mission is to empower tenants and see more respect and justice for tenants in housing court," said Raquel Namuche, Community Organizer with Make The Road New York. “That means no more preferential treatment for landlord attorneys. When we change the physical environment we start on that path."
Since the report and rally, it has been reported that Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher will administer a few of the report’s 33 recommendations, like easier-to-read signs to help native English and ESL speakers navigate the building, more benches in court hallways, and clear notices of judge’s rules in every courtroom, to explain the rules of the courtroom (already in place). However, some other recommendations, like space for childcare, may not happen due to lack of funds in the court’s budget.
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