Force Out

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Along the back wall of the Brooklyn Housing Court, nervous tenants huddle along the counters attempting to decipher the confusing forms. Some team up while others go solo, but nobody seems exactly sure how best to navigate the jungle of stipulations and eviction notices.

“Does anybody over here need help?” shouts Derrick Johnson, a counselor from the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court. Six people immediately grab their papers and rush over to accept his offer.

In a court where more than 85 percent of the tenants can’t afford legal representation, the task force provides an invaluable source of information and guidance. In operation since 1981, the organization helps an average of 60,000 people a year, mostly poor tenants looking to stave off eviction or gain access to state housing subsidies like Jiggetts relief.

“Without the table, I wouldn’t know what to do,” says tenant Margie Adams, in court to fight an eviction order.

The only one who doesn’t seem to recognize the task force’s worth is the man who funds them. In May, Governor George Pataki cut City-Wide’s $263,000 annual appropriation from this year’s budget, eliminating 82 percent of the organization’s funding.

Soon after, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani vetoed the City Council’s attempt to restore millions in council pet projects, including the money needed to keep the task force’s tables and tenant hotline going. The council’s subsequent veto override probably won’t restore the money: Giuliani has vowed to invoke a little-used legal loophole that allows him to reject council initiatives he deems to be financially risky. Calls to the Giuliani and Pataki press offices were not returned.

The day after Giuliani’s veto, City-Wide’s Executive Director Angelita Anderson reluctantly sent out two-week notices to the counselors. On June 15, she was forced to cut the four-day-a-week table service down to one day a week. To make sure tenants weren’t completely left in the lurch, Anderson solicited the help of volunteers–including some of her board members–to help run the tables and hand out flyers.

It wasn’t enough. For two weeks, the tables were almost always empty and tenants were left to fend for themselves.

Some help has arrived. Anderson recently cashed the $40,000 check City-Wide gets every two years from its largest private donor, the Scherman Foundation.

The Scherman grant allowed Anderson to temporarily rescind the pink slips, although she had to cut salaries 20 percent.

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By July, Anderson was able to field three full-time and two part-time employees plus a handful of rotating volunteer law students. Borough counselors resumed the four-morning-a-week schedule, except for Staten Island, which is only open for two. “For now, we’re out of crisis mode,” says Anderson. “Who knows what will happen in September.”

Without someone to replace City-Wide’s lost state grant, the future looks bleak. Politically, the organization’s government funding options have been closed.

If City-Wide can survive until next year though, the Democratic state assembly will almost certainly restore funding. Task force staff are aggressively seeking help from other foundations and nonprofit organizations, but nothing is definite yet.

Without a savior, the task force will shut down for good in September.

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And that will be bad news for the frightened tenants that clutch wads of court papers outside the courtrooms. Back in April, Patricia Nelson came to Housing Court after her East Flatbush landlord gave her an eviction notice. She couldn’t afford an attorney, so she sat in the long row of metal chairs silently until the court official bellowed her name and told her it was time to stand before the judge.

“They rushed me through and pushed me to sign, I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. She agreed to be out of her apartment by July 20 without realizing that she had the option to request more time.

Unable to find a new home, Nelson came back to the courthouse two days before her eviction, in hopes of buying more time. Upon the advice of a friend in a similar predicament, she came straight over to the table and left with a plan and form to fill out to modify her agreement. “I wish I had known my rights in the first place,” she says.

“If there is no one at the table, whatever the tenant gets, the tenant signs,” Anderson says. “People come to the housing court and they just freeze. They don’t know they have choices.”