This is the third part in a four-part series on housing court.
To read the whole series, click here.
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Bronx housing court is crowded for a reason.
Among the five boroughs, the Bronx’s portfolio of affordable housing stock is the most robust, with rents that are still cheaper than in other parts of the city.
That’s why housing advocates see the northernmost borough as the last frontier in the fight for housing affordability — a final chance to stop the tide that continually pushes New Yorkers from their neighborhoods.
The Bronx has the highest concentration of subsidized housing in the five boroughs. The four ZIP codes surrounding the housing court and encompassing Highbridge, Melrose, Mott Haven and Morrisania, have the highest concentration of rent-stabilized housing in the city.
But while Bronx rents are known for being cheap, Bronxites remain poorer than their counterparts in the rest of the city. According to a 2013 Rent Guideline Board report, the poverty rate was lowest, at 11.6 percent, in Staten Island. It was 16.2 percent in Queens, 17.8 percent in Manhattan, 24.3 percent in Brooklyn, and 31 percent in the Bronx, which it noted was “consistently the highest rate of the boroughs.”
The Bronx also has more people receiving public assistance than any other county and more people receiving Section 8, and had a 9.5 percent unemployment rate in November, which though lower than it has been in recent years still topped the New York metro area average.
Its residents also had highest proportion of low-wage jobs (paying less than $12.89 an hour, or just under $27,000 a year) in 2012—47 percent—according to data published by the Center for an Urban Future in April of 2013.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s March 2014 report on housing affordability found about 50 percent of Bronx residents paid more than one-third of their income in rent, and another recent study by RealtyTrac.com found it was one of the least affordable counties in the country for its residents.
In other words, the Bronx is most affordable of any borough in terms of the actual cost to rent but least affordable in terms of what its residents can afford to pay.
Benefits and perverse incentives
Housing Court is where this dynamic plays out daily—not just because the court handles disputes between tenants and landlord, but also because a menu of government benefits to assist people in need are routed through the court.
One such benefit is the One Shot Deal that Valdez and Candelaria were seeking. Offered by HRA, the One Shot Deal pays back a tenant’s arrears if they can they can slowly repay the loan and afford the rent going forward. It is offered to tenants facing eviction.
And if you stand in Bronx Housing Court for more than a few minutes and you will inevitably hear the word “FEPS,” which stands for Family Eviction Prevention Strategy.
This housing supplement, provided by the State of New York to help prevent evictions through rental support to families for up to five years, is open to those eligible for public assistance and can be used to pay for a current apartment or, in certain circumstances, to move to a new one. But a person is only eligible if they have a case in housing court and children with them.
It is not uncommon for landlords to suggest to tenants that if eviction proceedings are started against them, the tenant will be eligible for the subsidy, and they can all walk away happy, according to people with knowledge of the Bronx court system.
Councilman Ritchie Torres, who represents the areas around housing court in the City Council, says the policy “creates a perverse incentive through evictions.”
Sometimes the system does not work perversely. In some cases, court is the place where a problem with a tenant’s benefits is flagged and both tenants and landlords find the help they need with arrears, at least temporarily. When some problem crops up with public assistance case, a child ages out of FEPS or the rent increases above FEPS’ maximum, for instance, tenants end up in court. There is often a line on the second floor of the courthouse for help from BronxWorks, the nonprofit that helps link people to FEPS.
Many of the cases in Bronx Housing court, a paralegal estimated, involve a third-party rent subsidizer, such as NYCHA, HPD or Section 8. In order for a public assistance recipient to get a higher shelter allowance to help them pay the rent they must first be brought to court and “literally have to be threatened with eviction” before they can get the FEPS subsidy.
“Most cases you see in housing court are cases where the owner is trying to get a government agency to do what they’re supposed to do,” says the landlord-backed Rent Stabilization Association’s Mitchell Posilkin. “At the end of the day their motivation is not the eviction of tenant Smith and tenant Jones.”
Often, he says, cases are part of an effort to get public assistance to pay what it owes. Tenants and landlords, he says, are forced into a needlessly adversarial position in court “all because a government agency isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do.”
The same dynamic that plays out with tenants — and landlords — coming to court for FEPS, Posilkin says, took place when the city ended its Advantage subsidy program. The rental subsidy program for former homeless shelter residents was shut down when the state pulled funding.
“We actually joined with Legal Aid in suing the city,” Posilkin says. “Not only did families get screwed, our guys got screwed. Then they had to bring nonpayments against these families who ended up being homeless.”
But people who work in the courthouse these days say they are seeing not just the usual need — much of it contributing to a caseload that Posilkin and others believe should be considered for non-legislative remedies—but also new trends.
For all the blame earned by government bureaucracy, real-estate speculation also plays its part.
Unlike other boroughs, the Bronx has historically not seen the kind of efforts witnessed in Manhattan and hip Brooklyn to deregulate rent-stabilized apartments, because the Bronx market could not bear rents higher than the legal stabilized rent. In fact, many Bronxites in subsidized housing get “preferential rents,” which are below the legal limit. But close observers of the court say more people are coming in because of increases to preferential rents.
Legal Services’ Kathryn Nielson says she is increasingly seeing signs of real-estate speculation in the types of cases being filed by landlords.
They include a rising number of so-called “chronic non-payment holdovers,” which is an effort to evict somebody based on prior non-payment cases and a sign that in a landlord’s cost-benefit analysis, getting the tenant out of the apartment is more important than collecting the rent.
Nielson sees this as a sign of “early gentrification or pre-gentrification,” she says, with a lot of the chronic non-payment cases coming specifically from University Heights and the western Bronx.
Positive changes in the borough, like a reduction in crime and investment in housing, have encouraged families to stay and immigrants to come, helping the borough regain almost three quarters of the population lost in the 1970s, according to an economic snapshot of the Bronx taken by DiNapoli’s office in July 2013.
But the Bronx’s resurgent desirability, coupled with the poverty of its residents, could be a recipe for exploitation of vulnerable populations as the market begins to turn around.
Many illegal immigrants are “doubling up,” says Fitzroy Christian, a CASA tenant leader, using one apartment to house two or more families, which is legal under regulation. However, because of these tenants’ immigration status and ignorance of the complicated rent laws, landlords file court cases they know they cannot win against tenants as a way to intimidate them into paying more or to vacating the apartment. Laws allow landlords to raise the legal rent by 20 percent upon their vacancy—and more, if certain improvements are made.
“When they come there and they see the two families, they’re saying ‘The lease is only for one family. And if you’re paying $1,200, I’m going to give you a break. Instead of paying $2,400, I’m going to take $2,000 from you and the two families can continue to live there,” Christian says. “But the apartment is actually registered for $1,200. Eventually the landlord will say, ‘Look, you need to give me some more money.’ And if the tenants balk, then they say, ‘Hey, we can get immigration to put you out of here or I’ll take you to court because you didn’t get permission to have somebody else here.’ The tenant most likely doesn’t know that he can’t do that. He would not win that case in court.”
“They pay or they leave,” Christian says.
For many tenants who come to housing court, the revolving door in the court’s lobby is just that. But Bronx Housing Court Supervising Judge Jaya Madhavan says he’s seen an influx of first-timers since 2010 with the decline of the economy.
“There’s a lot of press given to the rent race between Brooklyn and Manhattan. What you don’t hear a lot about is what’s going on elsewhere, which I think is that as people are being priced out of the other boroughs, like Manhattan, and Queens and Kings county, they are all competing for affordable housing in the last place that they can find it here in the Bronx,” Madhavan says. “So you have the unfortunate stress of having families fighting over housing, which isn’t necessarily always in the best shape either.”
This is the third 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.