No Entiendo, Mwen Pa Konprann: Housing Court Language Barriers

In a city with complex housing laws, attending Housing Court comes with numerous obstacles. As a 2011 report by Make the Road New York on Brooklyn Housing Court highlighted, the average person finds it difficult to navigate the system without assistance. The organization is confusing, signs with instructions are scarce, and help is difficult to find.  

If you’re one of the two million New Yorkers who have limited proficiency in English, these hurdles multiply. If a help desk can be located, interpretation services likely will not be immediately available. Make the Road’s report noted that even though “We Speak Your Language” signs were posted in 20 languages, the sign telling people where to go for information about interpretation was in English only. 

Tenants in Housing Court are often dealing with dire issues that should be handled immediately, like eviction notices, mold, and lack of heat and hot water. This process already often takes longer than it should, but people who speak limited English are frequently forced to wait even longer, to get a court date when an interpreter is available. 

After visiting Housing Courts in each borough and seeing similar patterns, city Comptroller Scott Stringer recently called for “an immediate, comprehensive examination of the barriers to entry for non-English-speaking New Yorkers in our housing courts.” In a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti, he urged placing “We Speak Your Language” signs prominently and in more places; expanding the use of Help Centers; and making literature available in at least the six languages most commonly spoken in the city, beyond just English and Spanish. (In Brooklyn, the six most common foreign languages are Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, and Italian, according to Make the Road.) 

Stringer also said it was important to put resources into making more interpreters available, both inside and outside the courtroom. Many Housing Court cases are settled in hallway negotiations, and even tenants who are fluent in English are at a disadvantage there because they often don’t understand the implications of stipulations they sign. 

“New York is a global city and our courts must be reflective of the city’s rich diversity,” says Afua Atta-Mensah, director of litigation at the Urban Justice Center. Because defendants in civil courts, such as those facing eviction, do not have the right to a lawyer, it is necessary that those defending themselves can at least understand the process. 

 

Mia McDonald is an intern at Met Council. From Houston, she has previously worked with the nonprofits Accion Texas and the Queens Economic Development Corporation. She is vice president of College Democrats at St. John’s University, where she studies economics and government & politics.