Make the Road Finds Chaos and Disrespect in Brooklyn Housing Court

We demand respect in Housing Court,” says Kimberley Oliver of Flatbush. She was one of more than 100 people who picketed outside Brooklyn Housing Court on Dec. 14, in a demonstration organized by the Brooklyn Tenants United coalition.

The protest marked the release of a report entitled “Home Court Advantage: How Landlords Are Winning and Tenants Are Losing in Brooklyn Housing Court,” issued by Make the Road New York. The report notes that 85 percent of landlords appearing in the court are represented by lawyers, while less than 10 percent of tenants are. It also found “problems with the physical environment, the lack of services and information, and the need for greater respect and impartiality.” Other problems, the group says, include “inadequate multilingual services, the lack of child care, and the limited accommodations for people with disabilities.”

“The elevator takes forever and you are packed in like sardines,” Oliver told the demonstrators. “Once you get to your floor, you enter a world of total chaos. You’ve got people standing having conversations, attorneys talking, court officers screaming out things, people don’t know where they belong or how to find out where they belong, and elderly and disabled people have to stand for a long time because there are not enough chairs. You can also sense the fear in tenants; you hear attorneys and landlords talking about money, but you don’t hear them talking about the repairs that people desperately need.”

Brooklyn Housing Court is second only to the Bronx in the number of cases it handles, with 12,585 filed in the first three months of 2011. More than 90 percent were eviction petitions, with 1,049 “HP actions,” in which tenants try to force landlords to make repairs.

“For the number of cases it handles, Brooklyn’s facilities are grossly inadequate,” the Make the Road report says. Queens Housing Court, for example, has a 300-seat courtroom, while in Brooklyn, courtrooms are so overcrowded that tenants often have to stand. Judges in Brooklyn have a heavier caseload, especially for HP actions. The one Brooklyn judge assigned to HP actions had to handle about 350 cases a month, compared with about 150 in Manhattan.

The result, the report says, is that “unrepresented tenants can frequently be found negotiating with landlord attorneys in the hallways…. As the interactions are not subject to any court supervision, tenants can more easily be persuaded to accept agreements that disadvantage them.” Those agreements are often reached “with tenants literally pinned against the wall.”

“The lack of clear information” for tenants is the second main problem the report named. Tenants have to find which courtroom to go to by looking at computer printouts to get their case number. Those printouts  are often illegible. Once tenants go to the proper courtroom, they often find a handwritten sign indicating it has been moved for the day. 

Make the Road says it “observed dozens of tenants enter courtrooms without case numbers, only to be told to go outside and check the printout again. In none of these cases did the court clerk or officer help a tenant find the correct courtroom or case number.” That is crucial information, because if a tenant fails to appear—and check in—at the appropriate courtroom, their case will be “defaulted,” treated as if they had not showed up to defend themselves against the eviction.

People who speak foreign languages have an especially hard time. The most important signs are in English only—including the one for where to find an interpreter, the report says. The few Spanish interpreters are hard to find. Chinese interpreters are available only two days a week.

The report described the third main problem as “a culture of disrespect towards tenants.” Make the Road observers said they “routinely see court staff shouting at unrepresented tenants,” including one incident when a staffer yelled “what’s wrong with you?” at a woman who couldn’t find her name on the computer printout. 

“She was so rude the woman started crying,” said the observer, Maria Elena Khochaiche.

The system of “stipulations”—the formal agreements by which cases are settled out of court—also favors landlords, the report says. Judges rarely explain the process or “ask questions or investigate the facts to ensure that the stipulation is fair.” Although one room is no longer informally reserved for a large landlord law firm, owners’ attorneys still use official court space such as back rooms to negotiate settlements with tenants. Along with the use of preprinted stipulation forms, this gives tenants the impression that the landlords’ lawyers “are part of the court apparatus,” Make the Road says.

 

Recommendations

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Better information for unrepresented tenants, including clear signs, written explanations of the process, and an information desk on the first floor;
  • Measures to reduce overcrowding, and repairing elevators and bathrooms;
  • Well-trained interpreters and signage in Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, and Italian, the six most common foreign languages in Brooklyn;
  • Free child care;
  • Working photocopiers and more computers available to unrepresented litigants;
  • Better accommodations for people with disabilities;
  • A code of conduct for how court staff should treat litigants; and
  • Judges should explain the legal language and consequences of stipulations and ensure that litigants understand them. Judges should confirm that tenants realize that preprinted stipulations are not court-authorized “standard” agreements, and should not approve stipulations that are patently one-sided.

In November, Brooklyn Tenants United members met with Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher and Ronald Younkins, chief of operations at the state Office of Court Administration. They reported a “productive dialogue,” with Judge Fisher committing to providing clearer information on defaults and stipulations.

Ultimately, however, the report argues, Brooklyn Housing Court should move to a more modern facility when the lease on its current space at 141 Livingston St. expires in 2014.  “The people of Brooklyn have outgrown this building,” says Marietta Small, head of the Flatbush Gardens Tenants Association. 

 

Housing Court’s Slumlord

Ironically, the 141 Livingston St. building is owned by David Bistricer, who is widely reviled as one of the city’s worst landlords. The city pays him more than $10 million a year in rent for space in two downtown Brooklyn buildings, the Daily News reported in November 2010.

Bistricer is Small’s and Kimberley Oliver’s landlord. His Renaissance Equity Holdings owns the 59-building Flatbush Gardens complex. Flatbush Gardens has more than 3,000 outstanding violations of the city’s housing code, according to the tenants’ organization there, including more than 600 Class C (immediately hazardous) violations. Maintenance workers there have been locked out since November 2010, when they refused to accept a one-third pay cut demanded by Renaissance Equity. 

That same month, Bistricer sent 15 elderly tenants letters threatening them with eviction for allegedly smoking, drinking, and gambling in the building’s hallways. One, a 69-year-old woman, told the Daily News she hadn’t had a drink in three decades.

“How can a landlord own Housing Court?” Oliver asks.