Report Says Bronx Rent Disputes Favor Landlords

The Bronx handles more than 85,000 housing court cases annually, more than any other borough, making it New York City’s epicenter for disputes between landlords and tenants.

Now a new report by tenant advocates charges that the borough’s heavy caseload puts tenants at a disadvantage, and that tenants often receive scant attention from busy judges and have few other resources to help them fight landlords’ lawyers and navigate the legal process.

“Bronx Housing Court does not currently operate as a place where tenants can access justice, but rather as a place where tenants are brought to court and evicted at a disturbing and unprecedented rate,” according to the report, which will be released on Friday by New Settlement Apartments’ Community Action for Safe Apartments and the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center.

In 2012, the Bronx led the city with 10,966 families evicted through legal proceedings, followed by 8,514 in Brooklyn, the most populous borough; 4,606 in Queens; 3,776 in Manhattan; and 894 on Staten Island, according to city marshals. Citywide, the number of such proceedings rose 4 percent to 28,756 from the year before.

Judge Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for the city’s courts, acknowledged that the 14 housing judges in the Bronx saw many more cases than their counterparts in other boroughs. For instance, Brooklyn, which handles fewer housing court cases (about 72,000 annually), has two more judges for a total of 16. Manhattan has 12 judges; Queens, 7; and Staten Island, 1.

Judge Fisher said she was unable to send more judges to the Bronx because of a shortage of space in the Bronx courthouse, which has outgrown its building. One judge is already forced to hold court in another building a couple blocks away.

“The challenges of the Bronx make it difficult for both sides,” said Judge Fisher, adding that landlords frequently complained that their cases were taking too long.

Judge Fisher said court officials were working with the city to address the space shortage, and had reassigned 20 clerks, officers and interpreters to the Bronx from other boroughs in the last two years in response to the heavy caseload. In addition, the state has increased financing for tenant legal services, and court officials are teaming up with New Settlement Apartments to train volunteers who will be stationed in the hallways to assist tenants.

But Susanna Blankley, New Settlement’s director of housing organizing, said the state should be doing more to help tenants. The report’s recommendations include passing a state law to give all tenants the right to a court-appointed lawyer, requiring housing court employees to wear identification tags, and providing free child care at the courthouse so tenants can focus on their cases.

“The rate of evictions in the Bronx is appalling,” Ms. Blankley said. “The tenants who need the most help get the least help.”

Still, New York already offers far more tenant legal protections than other cities, said Stuart M. Saft, a real estate lawyer who is chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, which represents about 2,000 buildings citywide. For example, Mr. Saft said, it could take from six months to two years to evict a nonpaying tenant.

“It’s the tenants themselves who are overwhelming the system because when they get a ruling they don’t like, they either appeal the decision or find another judge who issues an injunction against the enforcement of the first decision,” he said.

The report, which was based partly on firsthand observations of judges, focus groups and more than 1,000 tenant surveys, found that the majority of tenants did not have a lawyer and were generally uninformed about court procedures. For instance, many tenants said they signed agreements with landlords’ lawyers in the hallways before appearing in court. Housing advocates have criticized such agreements for offering tenants less favorable terms than they would receive from a judge, like requiring faster payment of back rent or tacking on legal charges or late fees, and that way increasing the likelihood of their eviction.

“You have rights, but no one tells you,” said Carmen Vega-Rivera, 59, who has been fighting eviction proceedings since 2010 after withholding part of her rent to protest what she said was her landlord’s refusal to make repairs and poor conditions, which have included no heat, hot water or elevator service. She said she had learned not to sign any agreements outside the courtroom, and she advises other tenants not to.

Lawyers and representatives for landlords have defended the practice, saying that such agreements are reviewed afterward by the housing court and allow time-pressed tenants a quick way to resolve housing disputes. “We have to settle cases because the court can’t handle all these cases going to trial,” said Jesse Lamas, a paralegal. “There are a lot of people who can’t pay their rent.”

New York Times
March 14, 2013
by Winnie Hu