The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: housing court

Bronx Tenants Fight Back!

Check out the story below about the Organizing and Policy Department, from UHAB’s Fall News Update. Read more about the work that UHAB is doing here

Black mold spatters the walls like a Jackson Pollock painting. Water spills from cracks in the ceiling. The halls are covered with peeling lead paint. Roaches and mice feel safe and protected here. But the tenants of 1058 Southern Boulevard do not. Many of these tenants have called this 55-unit building in Hunts Point home for decades. And for years it remained a relatively decent and affordable place to live. But a new landlord acquired the building and began allowing it to fall into shameful disrepair.

As the tenants’ suffering grew, so did their outrage. In late 2012, they reached out to UHAB’s Organizing and Policy Department for help. In January, tenants filed for a 7A action. If successful, this could result in removing the building from the landlord’s control and placing it with a tenant-and-city approved manager. In March, UHAB Organizers assisted in making the landlord aware of the filing, working with tenants to deliver an “EVICTION” notice to their landlord.

Following this event, organized tenants began to feel harassed by their management company. Intimidation has included threats of eviction, unlawful refusal to renew leases, and summons to housing court. UHAB stood with the rent-striking tenants, many of whom are facing non-payment cases, as they delivered called on the Bronx Housing Court to stop siding with landlords and hear their plight.

“She harasses us, threatening eviction if we continue to work with HPD and other entities to improve conditions in our homes,” says longtime tenant Lisa Ortega. In April, the Tenants’ Association, UHAB organizers and other allies rallied outside Bronx Housing Court to demand the landlord, Miriam Shasho, immediately cease in the myriad of trumped up cases brought against residents. Tenants are now being supported by their Councilmember, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, as well as the Urban Justice Center.

“We have been brought to court over and over again,” says Lisa Ortega. “Our building is in terrible condition and we desperately need repairs. We didn’t have heat or hot water all winter.”

After the second organized action, the tenants offered tours of their neglected building to HPD and Sovereign Bank (the lender). The management company was pushed to provide a building super. They did so grudgingly, saying superintendent services would only be available “during normal business hours.”

HPD has rejected this halfstep. They have asserted that the management company must provide 24-hour superintendent services, and they must do so quickly.

“In the long run, we would like to see the tenants have a larger role in the decisions made about their housing – either though the mutual housing model or as a limited equity cooperative,” says Cea Weaver,

UHAB’s Assistant Director of Organizing and Policy. “This building is not in foreclosure, so a preservation plan that includes new ownership may be a long way off, but the tenants’ association is fierce and determined.

“At the heart of everything we do is UHAB’s philosophy of resident choice – that tenants have an inherent right to assert their collective vision about how their home should look and feel. All tenants have a right to safe and affordable housing, and we believe that residents themselves are much more equipped to protect this right than absentee landlords and predatory equity companies.”

Press Release: Organized Bronx Tenants Visit Housing Court to Demand Freedom From Harrassment

On Wednesday, April 17th tenants from the 1058 Southern Boulevard Tenants’ Association and their allies outside of Bronx Housing Court demanding that their landlord immediately discontinue unjustified housing court cases against the residents.  The tenants are being supported by their Councilmember, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center.

In January, tenants made their landlord, Miriam Shasho, aware of their plans for file a 7A action. If successful this would remove the building from the landlord’s control. Since that time, organized tenants have felt harassed at the hands of their management company, including threats of eviction, unlawful refusal to renew leases, and summons to housing court. Following the rally, tenants who have received non-payment petitions will join together to answer their cases before a judge.

In addition to bringing their landlord’s tactics into the limelight, tenants are hoping to draw attention to the systematic inequalities within the Housing Court. Tenants often lack representation and as a result are shut out of the complex and alienating Housing Court process. According to a new report released by CASA and UJC, tenants are frequently even denied their right to go before a judge, signing confusing stipulations in the hallways rather than in a courtroom.

“The tenants from 1058 Southern Boulevard have been brought to court over and over again. Our building is in terrible condition and we desperately need repairs. We didn’t have heat or hot water all winter. We feel our landlord is harassing us and we would like the court to recognize these tactics are unfair and harmful to tenants.” said Lisa Ortega, representative of the Tenants Association.  

Tenants in this 55 unit building have lived side by side with housing conditions that threaten their health and safety for years, including no heat and hot water, black mold and mildew, severe leaks, rats, and roaches. The building was recently entered into HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, an aggressive enforcement tool reserved for the city’s 200 most distressed properties.

“Once again, I congratulate the tenants of 1058 Southern Boulevard for their diligence and efforts to ensure the owner of 1058 Southern Boulevard provides quality and safe housing,” said Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo. “In their latest efforts, they have joined forces to answer the landlord’s claims that tenants owe rent and in most cases, they do not owe back rent.  I support the tenants in their efforts and will continue to work with them to ensure the owner is held accountable for improving the deplorable conditions of the property.”

 

“We have seen buildings where landlords employ harassment tactics to try and discourage tenants from organizing,” said Kerri White Director of Organizing and Policy at UHAB. “The tenants of 1058 Southern Boulevard know their rights. They will stand up for their homes and families, no matter what obstacles they may have to face.” 

Housing Court: Who is Representing Tenants?

Eviction Notice

Housing court — the epitome of inequality.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times published an article detailing the imbalance of power within housing court. According to the article, millions of Americans face eviction each year.  Of those cases, 90 percent of landlords have legal representation while 90 percent of tenants do not.  Without proper legal training, most tenants cannot win against attorneys and are, in turn, evicted from their homes.

How do we rectify the unprecedented number of evictions and, as a result, lessen the growing problem homelessness in our city? One solution, according to Matthew Desmond, could be “publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court.”

In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, which requires the defendants in criminal cases to have legal representation. The court judges insisted that without legal representation, the hearing would be unfair. Eighteen years later, the Supreme Court heard the case of Abby Gail Lassiter, which concluded that defendants in civil cases also required representation, but only specific types of cases where “the loss of physical liberty was at stake.”

While our laws protect those facing jail time, they do not protect against those facing homelessness. Each experience is undeniably torturous, yet we wonder how the court has decided that a prison-term is worse than a term on the street. Once someone becomes homelessness,  changing that reality is incredibly challenging.  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), only 77% of homeless youth attend school regularly. The NCH also sites that 16% of the adult homeless population experiences severe and persistent mental illness. With the continued cuts to public assistance programs like Work Advantage, combating and overcoming homelessness is near impossible (especially in our post-Sandy reality).

Increased legal representation for all civil cases would also limit the number of landlord abuses. Take the tenants living in 1507 St. Johns Place in Brooklyn. They have received numerous threats from their receiver accusing them of not paying their rent. If the tenants were not already working closely with Brooklyn Legal Services due to the foreclosure of their building, there is a good chance they would have been evicted from their homes and thrown onto the streets.

Some may question the cost of implementing a publicly funded program that would give all defendants in civil cases the right to legal services.  According to a 2010 report issued by the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in NY, providing legal assistance in civil cases increases federal benefits for low-income New Yorkers. The report estimates that in terms of benefits won and costs saved, the state would generate more than $400M. Not only would this type of program reduce the rising rates of homelessness, it would also give the city an opportunity to allocate much needed money elsewhere, including healthcare and employment (or other plans to build up long-term affordable housing in NYC!)

Providing representation for tenants in housing court is not only a monetary issue, but a moral issue. To ensure that all legal proceedings are as lawful as possible, we must ensure that both the prosecutor and the defendant are equally protected under the law. In order to have a truly fair outcome, equal representation is necessary.

Tenant Disadvantage in Housing Court? Take a tour and find out for yourself!

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 Roads 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

NY Daily News: “Attorneys Launch BrooklynTenant Lawyers Network to Press for Housing Court Improvements”

Crowds in line at Brooklyn Housing Court

Tenant lawyers, heavily outnumbered in Brooklyn Housing Court by attorneys representing landlords, have launched a bar association all their own to press for better access to judges.

“It’s time to stand up and be counted,” said Karen Bacdayan, a newly elected co-chairman of the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network, which signed up more than 60 members right out of the starting gate.

“There’s an automatic power imbalance in court, because so many landlords have lawyers,” said Bacdayan, who works at Legal Services NYC-Brooklyn Branch. The other co-chairman is Michael Weisberg of South Brooklyn Legal Services.

Just 5% to 10% of tenants in Brooklyn Housing Court have attorneys represent them — compared with 85% of landlords.

Bacdayan said the tenant lawyers’ group was created as a “counterpoint” to a 20-year-old organization, the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association.

All but one of Kings County’s 35 paying members are landlords’ attorneys, and the additional 100 non-members who attend meetings and functions are predominantly landlords’ attorneys, said its president, Michael Rosenthal.

Still, “we listened to both sides,” Rosenthal said.

The tenant lawyers’ group, which doesn’t charge membership dues, will try to make its voice heard by committees that make recommendations for housing judges’ appointments.

Also, it plans to work with supervising judges to improve conditions at the Housing Court facility on Livingston St.

“In these tough economic times, the stress level on all sides keeps going up and up — it’s a very charged atmosphere,” said Diane Lutwak of the Legal Aid Society Brooklyn Office for the Aging. She and colleague Kimberly Skadan are the tenant lawyer association’s co-secretaries.

“When you’re feeling stressed, it helps to be able to work for positive change for everybody,” Lutwak said.

lcroghan@nydailynews.com

Read more here.

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