NYC Housing Court Goes on Trial

Photo by: Ian Marsh
Advocates gather in Brooklyn Borough Hall to put housing court on trial. The court system's chief judge actually echoes most of their critique.

Advocates who fault the court's facilities and lack of right to counsel found it guilty on all counts in a hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

By: Ian Marsh

A consortium of tenant advocacy organizations held a mock trial of the Brooklyn Housing Court on Thursday in Brooklyn Borough Hall.

Over 200 people filled the ceremonial room in Borough Hall to watch Brooklyn Tenants United bring the housing court up on six "counts," including being located in a facility with "deplorable" conditions, a lack of translators, poor signage and not providing adequate legal representation to tenants.

BTU objected to the fact that the court building, located at 114 Livingston St., is owned by David Bistricer, who Mayor Bill de Blasio designated as one of the city's worst landlords during his tenure as public advocate. Tenant advocates also object to the number of court rooms reserved for landlord actions as compared with the amount reserved for tenant actions. Tenants who sue landlords are confined to one courtroom, while the remaining 14 courtrooms are reserved for landlord actions against tenants.

A number of politicians spoke at the event, many of whom were swept into office during the progressive tide of the last election. Public Advocate Letitia James, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna, Councilman Antonio Reynoso, Councilman Jumaane Williams and Assemblyman Walter Mosley all spoke before the mock trial.

BTU was invited by Adams into Borough Hall. The ceremonial room, a room with its formal decor, held a standing-room-only audience and was plastered with homemade signs made by various tenant organizations.

"This is not my house. This is your house," Adams said. "Diana and I have made it clear over and over again—it is to be used. The copper in this room should be worn out. The marble should be worn out." Adams added that Borough Hall should be seen as a symbol of empowerment to ordinary individuals.

Some of the officials had personal experience with housing court. Reyna, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, said that she had to translate for her parents in housing court from the time she was 8-years-old until she was 15. Despite her parents living in the city for years, they were completely ignorant of how to navigate the housing court system. She believes the court should provide translation services.

"Equality does not live in housing court right now," Mosely said. "When we're talking about injustice of a court of law we're talking about the epitome of hypocrisy."

Following the public officials' comments, BTU held a trial that, while discussing serious issues, often elicited laughter from the audience. The mock trial was presided over by BTU President Ronald Simon, who was dressed in judge's robes and, despite his lack of legal experience, gave the performance an air of officialdom.

"I watch a lot of CSI," he said.

Tenant leaders from several organizations read aloud compilations of tenants' experiences in housing court.   

Ruth Riddick, a tenant leader with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, read a fictionalized account of a woman in a wheelchair who has immense trouble negotiating the housing court. The woman, who was called Mary Kamu in the account, has an accident because she cannot get access to the handicapped bathroom.

Aga Trojniak, the Coordinator for the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, said that the account of Mary Kamu was compiled from actual accounts of its members' difficulties with housing court.

Representatives of Make the Road New York, a organization that works on housing, education and workers' rights issues, read an account in Spanish of a woman who is stuck in housing court all day because she does not speak English. The testimony was based on an account of a member of Make the Road, but could be applicable to most of the organization's members who have been to housing court, said Jose Lopez, the lead organizer for Make the Road.

Angel Martinez, a tenant who works with the Brooklyn Housing Independence Project, a tenant advocacy organization that is run out of two Catholic churches in Bushwick, relayed the account of how his neighbor, who did not speak English, was duped into signing away her right to stay in her rent stabilized apartment. Neither he nor his neighbor had a lawyer present at his hearing he said.

A mock jury of tenants unsurprisingly found Brooklyn Housing Court "guilty" of all "charges."

Gladys Puglla, the Environmental Justice and Housing Project leader for Make the Road, said that she wanted the court to have translators in the same six languages that are required for New York City paperwork (Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Hatian Creole, Russian and Italian, although various city agencies translate in different languages, depending on who they serve). She also wants every tenant in housing court to be represented by a lawyer. She said she has been to housing court over 20 times, and over half the tenants that she saw did not have lawyers. Because housing court cases are civil cases, defendants do not have a constitutional right to a lawyer.   

Puglla is in housing court herself because her landlord is attempting to evict her from her rent stabilized apartment.
        
Accounts of landlords attempting to force residents out of rent-regulated apartments have been on the rise recently, as neighborhoods across the city continue to gentrify. Once a tenant leaves a rent stabilized apartment, the landlord could renovate the apartment in order to bring the rent above the threshold of $2,500 a month, at which point the apartment becomes deregulated.

The Rent Stabilization Association, which lobbies on behalf of landlords, did not return a call seeking comment.

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the New York courts, said that in large part the court system agrees with the critique posed by the mock trial. "No one more than the chief judge believes that when folks are in court for basic human needs, and housing falls under that category, that in a perfect world they should have legal representation" he said. He also said the court system would prefer better facilities, but the city is responsible for where the court is housed.

The chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said in a 2010 speech to the Brennan Center for Justice that the judiciary "should be and is in fact a leader of the justice revolution that is taking place in our state and in our country." In the speech, he argued for increasing services to unrepresented litigants in civil cases.

In his State of the Judiciary address in February, Lippman said that housing and consumer debt courts will soon be provided "supervised non-lawyers" that provide pro bono assistance to unrepresented litigants for the first time. He found it shocking that over 95 percent of defendants in such cases are unrepresented, given the huge impact the cases can have upon the lives of defendants.