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NY Chief Judge Outlines Improvements to City Housing Courts

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NY Chief Judge Outlines Improvements to City Housing Courts

Postby TenantNet » Wed Feb 07, 2018 11:37 am

N.Y. Chief Judge Outlines Improvements to City’s Housing Courts

Report referenced in article:
Housing-Court-Report.pdf


Report calls for tenants to be assigned lawyers before court, staggered case schedules and more evening sessions
Corinne Ramey
Feb. 6, 2018

Judge Janet DiFiore said that New York City’s housing courts are among the busiest, most overburdened courts in the nation.

As New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore was driving away from her annual “State of Our Judiciary” address in the Bronx last February she saw a large crowd of people standing outside in the cold on a sidewalk.

“I asked Officer Sam Torres, who was accompanying me that day, if he knew what was going on,” Judge DiFiore said in Albany, while delivering this year’s address on Tuesday. “He quietly said to me, ‘Judge, that’s your Bronx Housing Court.’ ”

In her address, Judge DiFiore outlined plans to improve conditions in New York City’s housing courts, long considered among the most problematic courts in the state system. The courts are among the busiest, most overburdened courts in the nation, the judge said.

City housing courts, which handle more than 250,000 matters each year, hear disputes between landlords and tenants, including issues around unpaid rent, unmade repairs, harassment and rent regulation. For both landlords and tenants, the stakes are high: Landlords rely on the courts to make sure they get paid, and for tenants, losing a case can result in eviction. While tenants have historically represented themselves, New York City-funded legal services have increased representation in recent years. In 2016, 27% of tenants in housing court had lawyers, up from 1% in 2013.

“And as you might imagine, the litigants in this court are overwhelmingly people of modest means, frightened of losing their homes, or frustrated by living conditions that threaten the health and well being of their families,” Judge DiFiore said.

A New York state court system report released Tuesday described litigants’ experiences in housing court. Many stand outside in line for an hour or longer to get into the courthouse. Lines to file papers or see a clerk are also long. Many cases—as many as 40 to 90—are scheduled for 9:30 a.m., which contributes to long waits.

Among the report’s recommendations: Tenants should be assigned lawyers before they come to court. Cases could be staggered instead of being scheduled for the same time. Evening court sessions could be expanded so people don’t have to miss work. Some cases could be resolved through arbitration or mediation.

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, a public-defender organization, applauded the report for acknowledging some of the problems in housing court. Ms. Goldiner said housing courts were among the “worst of the worst,” compared with other courts, in terms of facilities and civility to lawyers and clients. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said of the report’s recommendations.

Housing court’s inadequate facilities and staffing are also issues for building owners, who rely on the court to collect rent, said Mitch Posilkin, general counsel at the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords. In recent months, housing court’s operations have slowed as more tenants have lawyers who prolong the duration of cases, he said.

The lawyers are the result of a bill signed last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, that gives low-income tenants the right to a lawyer in eviction cases. City officials said in August that the program would serve 400,000 tenants annually when fully implemented in five years.

“I think the right-to-counsel law is the straw that breaks the camel’s back with regard to the day-to-day running of the courthouses,” Mr. Posilkin said.

New York City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said that since the city had expanded access to legal assistance in housing court, residential evictions had decreased. “By making legal services available to New Yorkers facing eviction, we have leveled the playing field in housing court which is a core element of providing access to justice,” he added.

At housing court in Manhattan on Tuesday, tenants and lawyers camped out on benches in the hallways, waiting for their turns before a judge.

Walter Allison, who lives in the borough’s Washington Heights neighborhood, flipped through pages of payment documentation and photos of leaky pipes and roaches. He believes his management company is trying to force him out to turn his apartment into an Airbnb rental.

Mr. Allison, who works as a legal clerk, said he had missed two days of work fighting the case.

“The only thing I am guilty of is my rent was late,” said Mr. Allison, who said he has since fully paid. The management company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Write to Corinne Ramey at Corinne.Ramey@wsj.com
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