A mile or so up the Grand Concourse, past block after block of sandstone apartments and shuls gone over to the Pentecostals, gleams a four-story glass box. It looks like a shopping mall in Passaic, but in reality it’s the six-month-old Bronx Housing Court, the Galleria of the Damned.
The building may be new, but the people all seem used. The courtrooms, august, cherry-lined mausoleums, are often empty. That’s because most of this court’s business–cutting deals to extract unpaid rent from poor tenants–is transacted in lobbies and hallways. Here, defendants spend up to eight hours waiting, negotiating, whispering, jamming bottles into the mouths of cranky toddlers. Into their midst drift the functionaries who make their money here: drowsy landlord lawyers who wear wrinkled suits like bathrobes, Legal Services attorneys popping in and out of their barricaded second-floor offices and white-shirted court officers who bellow the name of the next defendant due at the dock.
From looking around, you would never guess that the court has just experienced its most significant change in decades. Last year, Albany rewrote its housing laws. Soon after, the court administration embarked on a new restructuring plan and, in the Bronx, shifted its whole enterprise to the new courthouse. Yet despite these variously intentioned efforts at reform, the court continues to function as it always has. Most landlords get paid something; most tenants avoid eviction. And everyone with a law degree makes a respectable living.
The grease that keeps this machinery in motion is a little-known, allegedly temporary rent subsidy that is the product of a ten-year-old lawsuit, Jiggetts v. Dowling. Like the court itself, “Jiggetts relief” is inefficiently administered, turns lawyers into clerks and gives tenants ulcers. Yet it also manages to keep roughly 26,000 poor city tenants off the streets each year. It is everyone’s favorite insanely run housing assistance program.
“I’d say that 85 percent of the cases I deal with end in Jiggetts,” says Steven Goldstein, a young landlord attorney who spends weeks at a time working out of his briefcase in Bronx Housing Court. “The point here is not to evict tenants. It is to get our money and keep poor people in the apartments. Jiggetts does that.”
If Jiggetts is powerful throughout the city, it reigns supreme in the poverty-stricken Bronx. For a borough with only 15 percent of the city’s population, the Bronx got nearly half of the Jiggetts money doled out in 1997, according to court statistics. Because so many Bronx tenants fit the Jiggetts profile, this relief has become the very lifeblood of the Bronx’s dysfunctionally functional low-income housing system. Landlords love it. Tenants can’t afford to lose it.
Elkie Collazo, a thin 23-year-old woman in a Gap baseball cap, arrives at the court building in the morning to answer her landlord’s complaint that she owes him $1,200. She doesn’t have the money to pay her debt, and like 93 percent of the tenants who appear in the court, Collazo doesn’t even have a lawyer to cut a deal.
Collazo is nervous, and rightfully so. Her daughter’s in school, but her four-year-old son is at home, being looked after by a babysitter Collazo can ill-afford to pay. She looks at her watch as she ponders the day ahead. “When you come to Housing Court, you got to be prepared to be here all day,” she says. “You don’t know if you’re going to be called in the morning or at two o’clock in the afternoon.”
Collazo’s savior arrives in the form of Marie Edwards, a caseworker with the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a South Bronx nonprofit that offers pro bono legal help to the poor. After reviewing the facts of her case, Edwards gives Collazo the advice she has given to hundreds people: Apply for Jiggetts as fast as you can.
Collazo is a textbook Jiggetts candidate. She is very poor, so poor she can’t afford a telephone. She has two small children and is on welfare. (Jiggetts relief is only available to families receiving Family Assistance, New York State’s version of the federal welfare program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families.) She is facing eviction–the subsidy is only available to tenants on the verge of being kicked out of their apartments. Most importantly, Collazo’s rent is hopelessly above what she can afford to pay. Apart from her welfare check and food stamps, Collazo receives a monthly “shelter allowance” from welfare that amounts to $286. Her rent is $453.26 for a Westchester Avenue apartment swarming with roaches in a building that is so poorly maintained the bathroom ceiling has collapsed three times in the last year.
Collazo’s application is also aided by another factor. She lives in a rent-stabilized apartment, which both landlord and tenant lawyers say makes it more likely the state will approve Jiggetts. Now all she has to do is fill out the application, send it in to the state, fill in any additional information officials request–and wait six to eight weeks for her answer to arrive.
Ten years ago, Barbara Jiggetts, a young woman in a situation similar to Elkie Collazo’s, approached Legal Aid for help. Her shelter allowance, $386 a month, also fell far short of her monthly rent, and she was also facing eviction. With file cabinets full of similar cases, Legal Aid decided it was time to challenge the legality of the state Department of Social Services’ shelter allowance rate, which hadn’t been increased in years.
Matthew Diller, a Legal Aid lawyer involved in the original case, recalls: “In the late ’70s, rent started going way up, and the shelter schedule just was not adjusted accordingly…. By the late ’80s, most public assistance families could not find shelter within the allowance. We kept coming across families who were being evicted because they could not pay their full rent.”
The case–which is still unresolved–was a Legal Aid broadside aimed at jarring loose hundreds of millions in additional state welfare housing subsidies. Over a decade of rulings, appeals, judgments and counter-judgments, the one decisive change brought about by the lawsuit came in 1991, when a Court of Appeals judge ordered state welfare officials to provide an emergency rent supplement to poor tenants facing imminent eviction. That court-ordered subsidy, which has grown from 3,000 clients in 1992 to 26,000 today, is now universally known simply as “Jiggetts.” Last year, it cost the state about $100 million.
There are two major reasons for the Bronx’s Jiggetts dependency. First, it is, per capita, the city’s poorest borough. Second, a higher percentage of tenants–three quarters, according to recent estimates–live in apartments run by large management companies.
Because large landlords and management companies rent units in bulk, they litigate en masse and are often represented by law firms who file multiple cases at once. That means poor tenants are more likely to find themselves hauled into Housing Court. “For a small landlord, taking a tenant to Housing Court is, at best, a last resort…. There simply aren’t enough dollars from other rentals to offset the loss of rent and cover attorney fees,” writes community development consultant David Rubel in a recent report on Housing Court for CAB. “[But] any landlord with more than 50 units of housing will usually have a close working relationship with a lawyer who specializes in Housing Court.”
Big Bronx landlords and their attorneys act like caseworkers–they routinely tell tenants to apply for Jiggetts if they are having problems paying the rent. “My landlord referred me over to Jiggetts,” admitted one tenant who didn’t want her name used. “He said, ‘You can apply for Jiggetts because they can help you pay the excess rent.’”
Tenant advocates describe Mike Ortiz as one of the fairer, friendlier landlords in the Bronx. A partner at Realty Group, which owns roughly 3,600 apartments, he says Jiggetts is the only way he can afford to keep poor tenants in an age of shrinking government housing subsidies. He estimates they go through court to put up to 300 tenants a year on Jiggetts. “If you can get [tenants] into the program, you’re guaranteed your rent. What’s better than that?” he says.
One problem with the tenant-landlord co-dependency is that it doesn’t protect enough tenants from eviction. To receive it, a tenant must be on welfare and it favors those who have a rent-stabilized apartment. Historically, the Bronx has the city’s highest per capita eviction rate, and that situation hasn’t much changed since the advent of Jiggetts.
According to court statistics obtained by Rubel, between 1991 and 1995 the Bronx averaged 5,762 evictions annually. In comparison, in Brooklyn there were 5,710 evictions during the same period–but that borough has nearly twice as many tenants.
Additionally, those who succeed in getting Jiggetts and avoiding eviction have no guarantee that their apartments will be maintained. To keep Jiggetts, tenants must stay in the same unit, and so are more likely to tolerate poor repairs and maintenance. Even if tenants withhold rent in protest, the landlord still gets the Jiggetts payments. “If you have a substandard apartment, the landlord is only concerned with getting Jiggetts,” says Julio Muniz, Bronx Coordinator with the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court. “Issues of repair are pushed to the side. Basically, it’s free money.” But for tenants, the rent-aid isn’t entirely free: For every $3 allotted in Jiggetts relief, the family loses $1 in food stamps.
For all its faults, tenant advocates live in mortal fear of having Jiggetts de-funded at a time when federal money for housing is increasingly hard to come by. (Over the course of interviewing for the story, several lawyers and anti-poverty activists urged City Limits not to write this piece lest it be used as a tool to attack Jiggetts.)
The fear isn’t unfounded. Since he took office, Governor George Pataki has unsuccessfully backed legislation to replace all housing subsidies with district-wide “flat grants,” a move that would effectively render the Jiggetts case–and the entire rent supplement system–moot.
“If a single mom with one child has no access to public housing and no access to Section 8 [federal rent subsidies] and no Jiggetts–how is she supposed to live?” asks Scott Auwarter, CAB’s director of eviction prevention.
It’s important to note that CAB, Legal Aid and Legal Services have a financial incentive to support Jiggetts in their own right, especially since other key sources of their funding have been attacked by GOP lawmakers. Organizations bill the government approximately $1,050 per housing court case resolved. Without the money from handling Jiggetts cases, tenant defenders in the Bronx would go broke, lawyers say.
Even so, many of these same tenant advocates admit that the system needs to change. According to lawyers for these organizations, it isn’t uncommon for an attorney to carry a caseload of five hundred Jiggetts clients a year, transforming much-needed client advocates into overworked paper pushers. CAB’s Auwartar estimates that 95 percent of his organization’s workload in the Bronx is now Jiggetts-related. Legal Aid lawyers such as Lisa Sbrana believe they spend up to 70 percent of their time on such cases, with each case involving 20 to 30 hours of legal work. “There’s no reason for it to require lawyers to do this work,” she says. “In terms of the actual mechanics of getting the money, there’s no reason it should require these groups to fill in the applications.”
Susan Bahn, a staff attorney at Legal Aid’s Brooklyn office, says that absent the legal time spent on Jiggetts, her office could devote more resources to representing clients for other equally important services like “divorces, civil cases, their not getting medical benefits, making sure they have food stamps.”
Although there has been some talk of streamlining the process to take much of the paperwork processing out of lawyers’ hands, the system is not likely to change anytime soon. That’s because the fate of Jiggetts funding is dependent on the fate of the larger Jiggetts lawsuit, which still languishes in state court.
Technically, the tenants have already won the case. Still, the state, continuing a policy initiated by Governor Mario Cuomo, has refused to begin negotiations over a permanent increase in the shelter allowance.
And from the Governor Pataki’s perspective, that makes sense. State regulators maintain they simply cannot afford to settle–or even seriously discuss a settlement. If the shelter allowance were hiked as little as $200 a month for the 405,000 families now eligible receive it, the state would have to dish out an additional $81 million a year–and that’s a huge bite out of Governor Pataki’s hard-won election-year surplus.
Sasha Abramsky is a Manhattan-based freelance writer. Additional reporting by Glenn Thrush.