By Sandhya Subbarao for NY City Lens
When Jillian Melendez arrived at the Bronx Housing Court on Wednesday at 9 a.m. a line had already formed outside. Mothers with infants in strollers, young adults and seniors shuffled along braving the arctic cold and what felt like single digit temperatures.
Like the rest of them waiting to get inside the courthouse, Melendez is a tenant who has received an eviction notice from her landlord, and, like many of them, this is not her first visit to the civil court.
According to the court register, some 1,500 to 2,000 people go through the Bronx Housing Court each day. The court handles the highest number of tenancy dispute cases, evictions and repossessions among the five boroughs. In 2012, the borough twice as many evictions and landlord repossessions as Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens.
The corridors of the five floors on which the courtrooms are located are full. The process is complicated and tenants must move through different rooms to fulfill the requirements of the bureaucratic process. They appear confused and unsure of where to go. The court personnel do not wear an identifying badge. The only people clearly identifiable are those that are walking around with a large number of files in their hand. They are landlords’ attorneys.
For many tenants, the Bronx Housing Court is a confusing organization to navigate. According to many of those in line, they believe the justice system is stacked against them and works in favor of wealthy landlords instead.
“The majority of the people that come to this court come from the poor immigrant population. They don’t speak English and cannot afford to pay for representation,” says Marshall Green, the attorney-in-charge of the Bronx Office at the Legal Aid Society, a non-profit organization that has been provided an office in the building.
Lack of proper representation is a serious disadvantage for low-income tenants. According to Green, 99 percent of landlords that are in court have an attorney and only about 10 percent of the tenants do. “In 95 percent of the cases where the tenant has an attorney, they [the court cases] are held in favor of the tenant,” he says, wishing more could be done to assist tenants who cannot afford an attorney.
“If you go to criminal court at least you are offered representation. Here, you are not. While the landlord has a lawyer, you are alone,” says Melenndez.
Attorney Green says that the large caseloads prevents judges from giving due attention to court cases. They simply don’t have the time to walk tenants through the negotiation process or explain the legalese and stipulations of an agreement that tenants may innocently sign with the landlord’s attorney.
Vincent Perez and his wife live on Fordham Road. He claims that his landlord is not taking care of repairs to the apartment. One room in his apartment has no heat and there is no light in the kitchen. Also, an exposed electricity breaker box that is not functioning poses a real danger, especially to his young children. For these reasons, Perez has withheld part of his rent payment to his landlord. In turn, the landlord wants to evict his family.
“We are not getting the services we paid for,” says Perez who has repeatedly come to court for reasons like this over the last two years. He wishes that “judges were more strict with landlords so that they [landlords] would fix the things they need to.”
Inadequate information, an uneven playing field and long wait-times are a toxic combination. Sharon Parson, a 54-year-old Bronx native, who, together with her neighbors in her apartment building had to deal with the demands of a new management company that is overseeing her building, says that the language and tone used by the landlords’ attorneys should be civil. “No one here is a criminal, everyone deserves to be treated with respect,” she says.
Last year, New Settlement Housing, a non-profit developer of low-income-housing together with the Urban Justice Center conducted a comprehensive study on the issues faced by tenants at the Bronx Housing Court. Their policy recommendations included increasing public resources for low-income tenants and the passing of legislation to give tenants the right to a court-appointed attorney, among others.
Green, the attorney form the Legal Aid Society, says that since the study was published, nothing has changed at the court and the recommendations have yet to be adopted. Meanwhile, all tenants can do is wait.
“I don’t have family that will take me in. If I am evicted, I will have to rely on the social system to help me find a solution. I guess I would have to go to a shelter with my children,” Jillian Melendez says, before going back to the courtroom where her fate will be decided.