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‘Don’t Pay Late, Don’t Pay Cash’: A Day in Brooklyn Housing Court

Steve Wishnia Sep 25, 2009

Brooklyn Housing Court is a lot more crowded than it used to be.

On a morning in early August, about 50 people fill the chairs on the building’s second floor, waiting to be called up to the windows to get their court date.

“Five years ago, the summer was dead. You’d see five people here,” says Kayla Schwarz, Brooklyn borough assistant for the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court. “It used to be much quieter.”

The last few years, however, have seen Brooklyn tenants battered by rising rents, a sinking economy, and landlords bent on getting more, more, and more. According to state Office of Court Administration figures obtained by City-Wide, there were more than 79,000 petitions filed in Brooklyn Housing Court last year. Out of those, 32,450 resulted in “warrants of possession,” which gave the landlord the right to evict the tenant. City marshals were called in to take the apartment in about 7,400 cases. In the other 25,000, either the tenant left on their own or the landlord decided not to execute the eviction.

Most Housing Court cases, says Norma Aviles, City-Wide’s Brooklyn borough coordinator, are landlords trying to evict tenants for nonpayment. Some are “holdover” cases, attempts to evict tenants for another cause. A small number are “HP actions,” filed by tenants trying to get their landlords to provide heat or make repairs. And in the last year, Brooklyn has seen a wave of foreclosures, with banks taking over two-family houses and wanting them vacant.

Aviles says it reminds her of Manhattan in the 1980s. “The landlords are aggressive, their lawyers are pit bulls, and they don’t cover the fact that they want you out,” she says.”

A few years ago, East New York, one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods, produced the most eviction attempts, according to Aviles and Schwarz. Today, they say, it is Flatbush, a working-class area populated mainly by Afro-Caribbean immigrants and directly in the path of gentrification as it spreads southeast from Park Slope. The real-estate petitioners listed on one court calendar bear this out: 699-711 Ocean Ave., 240 Crown LLC, Lenox Properties, 1911 Albemarle, 326 East 21 St. LLC.

“I feel like almost half the people I see are home health aides,” says Schwarz.

Aviles and Schwarz sit in a booth on the second floor, offering legal information and assistance to tenants. This floor is the first step in the process: Tenants line up at a bank of windows to answer their landlord’s petitions, the first official paperwork in the eviction process. If they don’t show up to answer that notice, a default judgment is entered against them. If they challenge the eviction attempt, they get a court date.

Most of the action takes place upstairs, in the hallways outside the various courtrooms. There, landlord lawyers and tenants—the overwhelming majority of tenants facing eviction have no legal representation—stand in small knots or sit on benches, trying to hash out the details of a settlement. If they agree, the landlord’s lawyer will write a formal stipulation and present it to a judge, who is supposed to read and explain it to both parties to make sure they understand it before he approves it.

“You’re telling me you owe nothing?” one landlord lawyer asks a young woman in jeans and sandals. “Tell me how she owes 800 bucks,” he says into his cell phone. Apparently the woman paid part of her $821 rent in February, all of it from March through June, and none for July. “I have July here,” she tells him, but she’s willing to leave the apartment.

“We’ll give you until August 31 to move. Keep all the money,” the lawyer tells her. She agrees.

In another corner, a woman with a West Indian accent is arguing that she paid her rent. “I just showed you the check,” she says angrily.

“That’s not proof,” her landlord’s lawyer responds.

“I’m losing money every day I come in here,” she says.

“The way the court looks at it,” the lawyer says haughtily, “is that it is incumbent on the tenant to present evidence that they paid the rent.”

“You owe cuatro meses,” another landlord lawyer tells a short Mexican-looking man while they wait for a Spanish-language interpreter. The man, whose name is Rodriguez, owes $5,208, four months at $1,302 per month.

“He says he doesn’t have the money,” the interpreter says. “Give me 15 days,” Rodriguez says. “Got any money?” the landlord’s lawyer asks.

The judge will order Rodriguez to pay $1,000 by the 10th and the rest by the end of August.

In Judge Bruce Scheckowitz’s courtroom, a digital clock ticks the seconds away as lawyers bearing sheaves of folders go in and out. A middle-aged woman from Bedford-Stuyvesant asks for more time to pay the $2,088 she owes, as her unemployment checks haven’t come through yet. She agrees to a stipulation that she will pay by Sept. 4.

“It’s a court order that carries the same weight as a trial,” he tells her. “Do not pay cash.”

“Do not pay late, do not pay cash,” he reiterates to a young woman who gets a six-month schedule to pay the $3,400 she owes on the Flatbush apartment she shares with her boyfriend.

A large, shaven-headed Flatbush man comes in with an “order to show cause,” asking for more time to pay the $2,293 he owes on the grounds that he has a pending application for a “one-shot deal.” That is a one-time emergency payment or loan from the city for working or recently unemployed people, intended to avert eviction and prevent them from becoming homeless. He gets 40 days to pay.

“He’s really a nice person,” a Crown Heights woman says of Scheckowitz outside the courtroom. “He makes sure you understand everything. I’ll give him that much.” The woman, a Jamaican immigrant, is facing eviction along with her disabled husband. The building they live in was foreclosed last year, and the bank wants them out. At this point, she says, they’re just trying to stay “as long as we can.”

Judge George Heymann’s performance does not get such good reviews from the City-Wide staffers. “People were getting evicted constantly,” says Aviles. “If you didn’t have all your documents, boom!” They thought he would do less damage when he was moved to HP actions, but “in the middle of winter, he was adjourning heat cases for a month.” On the other hand, the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, a group of landlord lawyers, named Heymann judge of the year in 2007.

Aviles and Schwarz say they often feel they are fighting against an overwhelming tide. Citywide, there were 291,000 petitions filed in Housing Court last year, with 120,000 resulting in warrants of possession and city marshals seizing 25,000 apartments. In the Bronx, more than half of the 83,000 petitions filed resulted in a warrant of possession.

Very few tenants in Housing Court have legal representation. The Legal Aid Society can represent tenants for free, Aviles and Schwarz say, but only if they have extremely low incomes and are elderly or have children—and it can take on less than 15 percent of the people referred. Language is another problem. The court provides interpreters in several languages—regularly in Spanish, Russian, Polish, and Kreyòl (Haitian French), and occasionally in Urdu, Chinese, and Yiddish—but Patois, the Afro-English hybrid spoken by many Jamaican immigrants, especially the older and poorer ones, is not among them. “A lot of people from the islands, even if they speak English, they don’t always understand,” says Aviles.

Tenants’ biggest problem, however, is economic. “We try to get more time,” says Aviles, but people just can’t make enough to pay $1,300 to 1,500 a month.

Schwarz echoes those sentiments. The courts do not consider “I haven’t been working” a valid defense to a nonpayment complaint, she notes. “The bottom line is, people can’t afford their rent. Even people who’ve been in the apartment a long time are up around $1,000. Salaries haven’t gone up. It’s a structural problem with the U.S. economy, but that’s another story.”

This article originally appeared in Tenant/Inquilino. Click here for the most recent issue.

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