As Housing Court Strains, Debate in Bronx Over How to Ease Crisis

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Tricia Nelson with her son Rajon. She visited Housing Court to get help with rent. It was her second trip.

Adi Talwar

Tricia Nelson with her son Rajon. She visited Housing Court to get help with rent. It was her second trip.

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This is the final part in a four-part series on housing court.
To read the whole series, click here.

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Despite recent efforts to empower tenants with more information in housing court, Bronxites are being evicted and in many cases becoming homeless at an alarming rate that outpaces any other borough.

Those who manage to hang on to their homes put up with some of the worst landlords because there’s no place for them to go. Landlords who bought up property after the housing crisis are renovating their properties, but pricing tenants out.

The pattern that played out in Brooklyn over the past 15 years begins with the kind of action now being seen in the Bronx. It’s reflected, in part, in the statistics on who’s entering the city’s homeless shelters.

In fiscal year 2014, there were 6,660 families with children from the Bronx placed in shelter, according to data provided by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Roughly a third of them were homeless because of evictions.

A large number of people entering the system have mental health issues. But 42 percent are working or have worked in the last year, while 26 percent of families in the shelter system have somebody in the family employed.

“You have the phrase ‘working poor.’ You now have the phrase ‘employed homeless,’ Councilman Ritchie Torres, whose district bumps up against the one containing Housing Court and is home to much of the need that spills into it, says.

shelterentrykidschart

DHS

The Bronx contains five of the 10 communities citywide that experience the highest incidences of family homelessness — University Heights, Morris Heights, Soundview, South Bronx, and Tremont. In total, 35 percent of all families eligible for shelter services come from the Bronx.

“We as a court can control what we have here within our walls,” said Judge Jaya Madhavan, Bronx housing court’s supervising judge. “We can’t control the economy; we can’t control the things that cause people to noT be able to afford their apartments anymore,”

“In a place like the Bronx,” he says, “there’s enormous stress for affordable housing,” that has erupted in the last four years.

More help coming

There is no doubt that housing is on the agenda, both in the Bronx and in the city as a whole. Not only is the city promising to build and preserve housing, there are also safeguards being put into place for those who find their housing threatened and are being brought to housing court.

One of the responses the Bloomberg administration mustered for this growing homeless population in the Bronx was the so-called cluster sites in which vacant rent-regulated apartments were taken off the market in order to shelter the homeless. The de Blasio administration, however has reduced cluster sites by half and reduced the amount of rent paid to landlords, according to DHS, which claims the city plans to get out of the cluster-site business altogether.

The city is also increasing funding for anti-eviction services. According to Laura Hart, press secretary for the city’s Human Resources Administration, funding for anti-eviction legal services has more than doubled from $6.4 million to $13.5 million this past year, helping to increase funding for HRA contracts with non-for-profit legal service providers. Indeed, the Legal Services satellite office in the Bronx Courthouse was busy on the last day of 2014 because there was so much training to do of new staffers.

shelter adults chart

DHS

Separately, Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine has proposed legislation that would provide tenants in housing court with legal representation. At Levine’s request, the IBO recently analyzed the cost of such a program to provide legal services to people at or below 125 percent of the poverty level facing evictions or foreclosures in court. It found that it would cost a net $100 million to $203 million in city funds annually, after saving $143 million annually in homeless shelter costs — $53 million of that in city funds — as well as in welfare costs prevented by job loss and school disruption that comes with displacement. It would also reduce turnover of rent regulated apartments and impacts of homelessness, the report found.

By giving 30 percent of tenants in housing court a lawyer, advocates claim, the very culture of housing court might be changed.

“All the shortcuts they take would disappear,” says Laurie of the landlord’s attorneys.

Still, the forces that drive rents up and tenants into housing court are beyond any simple legislative fix.

“We as a court can control what we have here within our walls. We can’t control the economy; we can’t control the things that cause people to not be able to afford their apartments anymore,” Madhavan says. 

What to build, and for whom?

Some critics claim that Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan could actually hurt Bronxites most stressed for shelter because the “affordable housing” he plans to build could actually have a gentrifying effect of raising prices. “What we call affordable housing is actually unaffordable to the people I represent,” Torres says. 

But Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. does not see development as driving the housing crisis but rather as an opportunity to fix it.

Diaz, who is actively trying to re-brand the Bronx as open for business, has poured $30 million to housing initiatives, according to James Rausse, who works in the office of the borough president. Rausse says that while housing developers tend to target their apartments to people earning 55 percent to 65 percent of Area Median Income (the federal statistic around which housing subsidies are built), Diaz “has a great concern about the Bronx losing its working families and young professionals.” The borough president’s office has funded projects between 30 percent and 110 percent AMI.

One fall day, the 161st Street Business Improvement District gave a tour to people from around the country gathered in New York City for the American Institute of Architects conference. They were just blocks from the housing court.

Kate Pastor

One fall day, the 161st Street Business Improvement District gave a tour to people from around the country gathered in New York City for the American Institute of Architects conference. They were just blocks from the housing court.

Rausse sees these ranges as helping to ensure the Bronx can be home to more than just the city’s poorest.

“When the city wants to build low-income housing they look to the Bronx,” he says. But he worries that “on one end you’re telling people to live in substandard housing on the other you’re telling them to leave” because the borough doesn’t offer housing for your professionals.

Diaz Jr., who has been a champion for development in the borough, an area that has thrived under his watch with multiple malls and shopping centers, is seizing the on the mayor’s housing plan and has been aggressive in making sure the Bronx is on the “affordable housing” map.

His office presented an advisory document to a meeting involving the mayor’s office and other city agencies highlighting housing development opportunities throughout the borough and identifying three proposed rezonings for development around proposed Metro North stops championed by his office. He identifies another 21 privately-owned sites across the borough and 28 city-owned sites, a mix of empty lots and existing structures, that could be used for development. 

One fall day, the 161st Street Business Improvement District gave a tour to people from around the country gathered in New York City for the American Institute of Architects conference. They were just blocks from the housing court when the head of the BID showed them the Jeter meter and the stadium and made a point of displaying to them the strips of garden planted along the Grand Concourse.

Afterwards, they were treated to lunch with the borough president, who presented the borough as a proud parent would. He repeated his mantra: “The Bronx is not burning. It is not Fort Apache.” Then he added that people should go home and tell their friends what they saw.

“While much has been made about Dumbo, and Long Island City and some areas of the areas around the Lower East Side, that area will be the next frontier of high-rise development,” he said of the waterfront from 149th to 138th Street. Diaz rattled off other new areas primed for development: Under the El near Yankee Stadium on River Avenue— where the group had just passed a gaping hole where the first 17-story tower was going up— the stretch from 138th to 149th streets, the 161st Street corridor, as well as up-zoned parts of Webster Avenue, Fordham and White Plains roads, and the southern portion of the Grand Concourse.

After the applause, a question came from a man who wanted to know two things: What had Diaz learned about development in Brooklyn that could help the Bronx, and how could he ensure that the borough would hold on to its character and characters?

“Brooklyn is on fire, but only in three or four neighborhoods,” the borough president said. “When we speak of economic development in the Bronx, we’re touching every corner.”

Another thing that would distinguish the Bronx from Brooklyn’s gentrification earthquake, he added, was that in the Bronx, “Nobody’s going to be left behind.”

Back in line

That could be news to the people just five blocks north, surrounded by the rezonings Diaz Jr. spoke of, who had been waiting at housing court all morning.

Because of recent reforms implemented by the court in response to the CASA study, judges in Bronx housing court are now required to welcome people to the courtroom each day and explain the functions of court personnel. But all those who come in after the speech — most, just by virtue of the line — will never hear it. Others, who are grabbed by landlord’s attorneys before court convenes, also never hear the preamble.

The rules are also shown in a PowerPoint presentation in each courtroom, but in the resolution part a lot of people never get inside the room. They wait in the hallway for the landlord’s attorney to call their name.

“Even if you’re very educated, you don’t know the law, you don’t know the loopholes, and you don’t have the experience of going to court and negotiating legal documents. A lot of them don’t know their rights,” CASA tenant leader Fitzroy Christian says.

CASA is now pushing for the next step, having tenants’ rights posted in the lobby, replacing an icon with what they say is a condition for achieving its symbolism. “Instead of having the scale of justice, move that icon to somewhere less conspicuous and have a big wall-to-wall sign with the rights in as many languages as possible,” he says.

Madhavan attributes the success of court-based programs with the decreasing number of Orders to Cause — usually filed by tenants once a non-payment has progressed to eviction —in Bronx Housing Court. There are other signs that recent reforms have had an impact. But the judge, like others involved in the court, doubts more reforms will do anything about the root problem that drives people to housing court, which is money.

“You can have a court attorney with an ID and obviously we have complied with all those requests, we’re happy to do so, but at the end of the day I think what most people need to is a way to pay their rent,” the judge says. “Getting from someone FEPS is really going to be more helpful to you in the long run than a video, right?” he asks.

Still, the scales of justice are there. So is the line. For thousands, housing court is society’s answer to their need. Valdez, who blames her saga in Housing Court for helping her spiral into depression, would say that the experience in housing court matters, too.

“They have this very dismissive attitude,” she says of the people there. “It does something to a person.”

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This is the final part in a four-part series on housing court. To read the whole series, click here. The series was made possible through the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

2 thoughts on “As Housing Court Strains, Debate in Bronx Over How to Ease Crisis

  1. Pingback: Battling the System in Bronx Housing Court - Voices of NY

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