High-rise Hellraiser

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It’s 6 p.m. and the office of the Urban Justice Center is empty. But in a small room in the back, a visibly tired Sharon Djemal sits in her cluttered office and takes notes as a client tells her his story.

The client, James, a 47-year-old man who has lived in New York’s public housing his entire life, is now facing eviction for something he didn’t do. It’s become a familiar refrain for Djemal, who has heard hundreds of stories like his in the last two years, from hundreds of tenants who are getting thrown out of public housing for minor crimes committed by their friends or relatives.

In James’ case, he allowed a friend who had nowhere else to stay to live with him for a while. Soon after he moved in, the friend began to get regular deliveries of boxes that turned out to be stolen property. James had nothing to do with the illegal operation, but he was arrested along with his friend. After spending the night in jail, James decided to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in order to wash his hands of the entire debacle.

But under the New York City Housing Authority’s policies, any tenant with even a tenuous connection to criminal activity gets the boot. James soon got an eviction notice–and even though the arresting officer testified at his eviction hearing that James had nothing to do with the crime, NYCHA continued to try to get him out.

“With my salary, I can’t afford to pay the rents in this city,” says James, who works 30 hours a week for less than $300. He was desperate to get a lawyer when he found out about Sharon Djemal and her one-woman campaign.

Since 1996, the Housing Authority, with encouragement from the federal government, has more strictly enforced its severe evictions policy: one strike and you’re out. As a tenant, you are vulnerable to eviction if your grandson gets caught smoking a joint on public housing grounds or if your friend gets arrested with a small amount of drugs. In fact, you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to get thrown out; just being charged on a drug offense is enough.

The 31-year-old Djemal has devoted the last two years to these tenants, who have almost no other recourse. For one thing, few lawyers understand the intricacies of Housing Authority policy. “Nothing applies to [NYCHA],” she explains. “Regular laws don’t apply to their courts, and most lawyers don’t know how to deal with them.” Few tenants have the wherewithal to mount an effective defense on their own.

“She’s on the ball,” the client says with admiration when Djemal leaves the room to make copies. “She cares. I just wish I had found out about her earlier on.”

But the truly remarkable thing about Djemal is her track record. So far, out of the roughly 100 eviction cases she’s represented, Djemal hasn’t lost a single one.

She doesn’t deny that there is a drug problem in the housing projects, but Djemal doesn’t think the agency’s eviction policies hit the right people. “The cases I get are just sad stories. I don’t get the drug dealers coming to ask for my help,” she says, laughing. “Chances are I would lose those cases.”

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If you had to pick out Sharon Djemal based solely on her reputation, you would pick wrong. She is small and slight, and her regular garb–jeans, sweaters, and T-shirts–belies her powerhouse impact. Although soft-spoken, she’s also sharp, astute and driven, and she gets riled when she hears stories of mistreatment from her clients.

NYCHA attorneys would not comment on what kind of an adversary she is. However, Shajn Venable, Djemal’s first client, describes her as a formidable force. Over the course of her two-year case, Venable says, “When [NYCHA attorneys] would hear that Sharon would be coming in to defend me, they would moan, and say, ‘Oh, no!'”

Djemal says that there was never any doubt in her mind that she would go into public interest law. While a student at Columbia Law School three years ago, Djemal was already focused on the big problems in public housing.

At Columbia, Djemal created the Housing Law Workshop with Adam Weinstein from the Westside SRO Law Project. The workshop allows students to represent tenants who would normally represent themselves at NYCHA’s administrative eviction hearings. In the past year, those Columbia students worked on 20 to 25 cases. So far, the Housing Authority has either lost or dropped 12 of them.

Then, when Djemal graduated in 1998, she was awarded the prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship and set up shop at the Urban Justice Center. “She’s taken a very ferocious bull by the horns,” said Patrick Horvath, the former associate director of the Urban Justice Center and the man Djemal calls her mentor. “The project Sharon designed was for those people who have no advocates. She’s about the only person in New York who took on these cases.” While attorneys from Legal Services and Legal Aid do represent some of these clients, says Horvath, Djemal “took the cases they would never touch.”

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Sharon Djemal herself points out that the cases she represents are but a drop in the bucket–hundreds of public housing tenants are hit with eviction threats each month. But so far, she’s just about the only bulwark against this policy.

It comes right from the top. President Clinton has encouraged zero-tolerance rules in public housing, as a way to crack down on drug use and dealing in the projects. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds NYCHA, also has no legal objection to the policy. According to HUD guidelines, because evictions are not criminal matters, housing authorities need not meet the criminal standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” before kicking someone out.

And that’s where the legal status of these evictions stands. In one Minnesota case, a 12-year-old had a friend come over for the first time when her mother was not home. Upon leaving the apartment, the friend was searched and caught with drugs. The courts supported the housing authority’s decision to evict both mother and daughter.

Locally, the laws are more lenient, but they still put the burden of proof on tenants. New York’s courts determined in the 1970s that if a tenant can prove that the person who got arrested doesn’t live with him or her, that person can’t be evicted.

“The Housing Authority sees that they can get away with evicting a lot of people who don’t have lawyers,” says Djemal. “With representation, the client does not get evicted, or the Housing Authority gets lazy and drops the case. You don’t need to be a brilliant lawyer to do this work.”

Why does the Housing Authority persist in trying to evict tenants when Sharon Djemal’s work has made it clear that all tenants need is a lawyer to fend off an eviction? Both Djemal and Judith Goldiner, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, believe that the Housing Authority’s agenda is to replace current tenants with a new class of residents–the “richest of the poor,” as Goldiner puts it. “I believe their mentality is to get what they consider the poor deadbeats out and put in a better class of people,” she says.

NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder denies that the authority is “eviction-happy.” “We are in the business of keeping people in housing,” says Marder. However, NYCHA’s own records seem to contradict Marder’s claim. Although the Housing Authority refuses to make final eviction statistics available, in just one month in 1999 it ruled to evict 107 tenants.

When Djemal moves to Oakland this August, she’ll be facing a tougher battle–California has particularly aggressive public housing eviction policies, which she plans to challenge. She’ll be setting up a similar project there. In the meantime, Columbia students plan to continue their workshop. Attorneys at Legal Aid and Legal Services have also expressed an interest in taking on larger numbers of eviction cases.

Of course, Djemal hopes that NYCHA will ease up on its evictions, but says she doesn’t expect that to happen anytime soon. “I think it’s going in the other direction, so someone needs to be doing this work,” she says. “Unfortunately, nobody is.”

Naush Boghossian is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.