As tenant organizers we often work with people living in abhorrent conditions. One strategy for tenants to improve their living situation is to take collective legal action. This strategy can be successful and make tangible, necessary change. However, when we mention the importance of tenants showing up to court for group HP’s or 7A’s, tenants often cringe, knowing the frustration and discomfort of being in housing court. Housing court is known by all to be an unforgiving place, but through Make the Road‘s December 2011 report “Home Court Advantage: How Landlords are Winning and Tenants are Losing in Brooklyn Housing Court,” it is possible to see how the chaos of housing court actually puts tenants at an extreme disadvantage. The report lays out problems with housing court, and how those problems are both unnecessary and systematically diminish tenant success in court.
One major problem with Brooklyn Housing Court is that the physical space is confusing and cramped.
“The rooms are very small,” said Maria Cortes, a Brooklyn tenant and member of MRNY. “Not everyone can fit, but then people have to leave because you’re not allowed to stand up in there. If they call your case and you’re not there, they go on to the next case. I saw that happen to a lot of people.”
The court system is wrought with many other inequities: Those with physical disabilities, children, or lacking in English language ability are at an extreme disadvantage. Furthermore, 85% of landlords are represented by attorneys while 90-95% of tenants lack legal representation. This means that tenants are vulnerable to accepting negotiations that are disadvantageous to their case.
As one legal services attorney said, “A system geared toward high volume automatically puts tenants at a disadvantage; it’s not about justice or finding out what’s going on, but churning through the cases. Everyone is funneled out to the hallways where the landlords’ attorneys have a lot of power.”
Finally, and most shockingly, is the sheer disrespect in housing court by staff to the tenants. Curt language, lack of patience, and even bypassing legal responsibilities such as making sure tenants understanding stipulations are standard in court. This behavior adds to high stress, intimidation, and ultimately the squashing of tenant rights.
Make the Road puts forth several recommendations to improve Brooklyn Housing Court such as moving the court to a new facility, and providing free and accessible translation services for all tenants who need it. Tomorrow, tenants from Make the Road will take press and interested parties on a tour of the Brooklyn Housing Court to illustrate first hand how horrible the experience can be.
Tenants and advocates will walk you through Brooklyn Housing Court, from the long lines to the dangerously overcrowded hallways and waiting areas. You will witness the confusion that results from the lack of clear information, the disrespectful treatment of tenants by court staff and landlords’ attorneys, and the challenges faced by tenants with limited English proficiency.
WHO: Tenants who have experienced the injustices of Brooklyn Housing Court firsthand will be joined by tenant advocates and lawyers to lead the tour.
WHERE: Brooklyn Housing Court, 141 Livingston Street at Smith Street
Take the A/C/F/N/R to Jay St.-MetroTech or 2/3/4/5 to Borough Hall
WHEN: Tuesday, April 17 at 9:30 a.m