When Willie Gilyard’s Harlem building was sold to a new owner last May, he didn’t think anything of it. He’d lived there for 27 years, and he’d been a good tenant, paying the $200 rent on his one-room apartment on time.
It wasn’t long, however, before the new owner made it clear that he wanted Gilyard out. Weeks later, as the owner began to renovate the building, Gilyard, 69, got a call from Protective Services for Adults, the city agency charged with protecting people who can’t look out for themselves.
It sounded great. Because Gilyard was a senior citizen, the city was providing him with a legal guardian to help him fight his eviction in court. That guardian, Betty Marshall, assured him it would all be worked out.
But over the next few months, Gilyard started receiving mysterious calls from nursing homes, suggesting he sign himself in. Then, one February morning, he got a nasty shock: a notice that he had 72 hours to clear out. Frantic, his daughter, Ivory Sampson, went to Housing Court to challenge the eviction. What she learned, she says, was “like out of a bad movie.” Marshall, the very person entrusted with keeping Willie Gilyard in his home, had signed a legal document on his behalf about six months earlier that promised he would leave the apartment.
That wasn’t the only surprise. In Housing Court, Sampson learned from a tenant advocate that her father’s apartment was rent-regulated–that is, he had every legal right to remain there.
Yet that’s not what Marshall said during the hearing. “She basically argued to the judge that the building was not rent-regulated and that my father had to leave the apartment,” Sampson remembers. Even worse, she claims, Marshall refused to tell her about the details of the case, saying only that it was best to send her father to a nursing home or a shelter.
“It was amazing,” says Adam Weinstein, the attorney from the Westside SRO Law Project who took on Willie Gilyard’s case that day. “Here I am trying to get the case dismissed, and she is arguing for the landlord’s rights.” Weinstein quickly proved that Gilyard’s apartment was rent-regulated, and the judge stopped the eviction.
Marshall admits she made a mistake signing the agreement for Gilyard to leave–she thought Gilyard lived in a private house, where he would have had few legal protections. She also acknowledges that she never investigated the landlord’s claims.
For her, signing the agreement was a way to turn an unfortunate situation into an opportunity. “He was living by himself in a room, totally isolated…he spends his time talking to the television set,” explains Marshall, a semi-retired lawyer and teacher who has taken on more than 250 court guardianships since 1992. “According to his psychological report, he has an impairment and could use support services. So I said, ‘Lets put him in an adult home temporarily while waiting for supportive housing'”–a place with on-site social services. It wasn’t the first time that Marshall attempted to use an eviction proceeding to move someone from their apartment to an institution. It also wasn’t the first time that she ran afoul of tenant lawyers–and, they contend, tenant rights–in the process. In March, attorneys from the Westside SRO Law Project and Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation met with Marshall and asked her to resign. She refused.
The case of Willie Gilyard has shed a harsh light on the role of court-appointed guardians, who are entrusted to speak for tenants who can’t speak for themselves. In the process, it’s also raised the vexing question of what to do when those elderly, mentally disabled or mentally ill tenants are living in solitude, squalor or danger–and don’t want to leave. Marshall’s priority is to protect the vulnerable by finding them professionally supervised homes. “Why was her father rotting in that room when he was eligible for senior housing 10 years ago?” she asks.
To which Weinstein responds: “I don’t care if he wasn’t ‘all there.’ I care whether he had a defense to keep him in his apartment, and he did.” To the tenant lawyers, the answer to Marshall’s question is obvious: Gilyard had every right to stay there.
An activist guardian like Marshall is an anomaly. More commonly, legal guardians are little more than a fragile lifeline for vulnerable tenants on the brink of eviction. In Housing Court, proceedings move at a dizzying pace. Landlords usually have experienced lawyers; tenants are usually alone and confused. For the mentally ill, mentally disabled and elderly, it can be a disaster.
“It is a million times worse than a regular Housing Court proceeding,” says Teresa Dafanzo, an attorney who has represented numerous mentally ill tenants. “They can lose their apartment without knowing what happened. It is very overwhelming.”
To protect such tenants, Housing Court judges may appoint a “guardian ad litem” at the request of a family or of representatives from Protective Services for Adults, a division of the city’s welfare agency. Legally, the guardian’s actions are equal to a tenant’s, and any agreements a guardian signs is final.
“It is a serious decision,” says Acting Supreme Court Justice Judith Gische of Manhattan. “You are taking away this person’s liberties, so you don’t take it lightly. But if they don’t know what is going on, it is essential to protect their rights.”
In general, Housing Court judges are supposed to rule only on a tenant’s right to occupy an apartment; it’s not their job to consider what’s in the tenant’s best interest. Yet there are also cases where tenants clearly cannot take care of themselves.
“People should always be able to exercise self-dependence. But in some cases, that’s not possible,” says Judge Marc Finklestein, who has produced a pamphlet on the do’s and don’ts of the guardian system. “The fact that there is a technical defense the guardian could use to keep the tenant there doesn’t always mean it is in their best interest to stay.”
Besides accompanying clients to court, guardians are also supposed to arrange services through PSA, including psychiatric and medical care, financial management, and housecleaning. The agency’s official policy is to strengthen tenants’ ability to be “self-directing” and keep them in their homes. For their work, city-appointed guardians get about $400 per case.
But according to tenant lawyers, many of the guardians that PSA appoints from its informal candidate list are less than vigilant. “They figure $400 is a nice fee for about 10 minutes’ work,” says Diane Luttwak, an attorney with the Brooklyn Office for the Aging.
“My client’s guardian couldn’t have cared less,” agrees Jodi Horowitz, executive director of the Citywide Task Force on Housing Court. As a tenant lawyer, she represented a mentally and physically disabled man who was being evicted after falling behind on his rent. According to Horowitz, the PSA guardian never appeared before the judge, read the evaluation or even met the client. “He assumed I’d do everything, and I did,” she says. “But had I not handled it, who knew what he would have done?”
Marshall, on the other hand, has infuriated tenant lawyers by doing too much. She’s proud of her efforts to find structured environments for deranged and impaired clients. “I have placed people who were kicking and screaming, and they are happy where they are now,” Marshall insists. In one case, a woman lived in an apartment packed with dozens of stray cats, both alive and dead. When Marshall came to visit, one of the corpses was decayed to the bone. The woman was being evicted because her neighbors couldn’t stand the stench; now, she lives at an adult home in Brooklyn.
Marshall says she’s deeply hurt by lawyers’ efforts to throw her out of Housing Court. “The meeting they had was like the Spanish Inquisition,” she says. “They are trying to destroy me at something I’m very good at. I’ve helped people.”
Weinstein and the other attorneys say they don’t mind that Marshall plays social worker for clients who have no other options. Their objection is that she refuses to take even basic steps to keep tenants in their apartments.
Attorney Bill Whalen met Marshall last year when a mentally ill client of his was about to be thrown out of his Washington Heights apartment. The man had fallen behind on rent after his roommate of eight years moved out. Marshall, as his guardian, declared him unable to live independently and suggested he move to a group home.
Whalen saw things differently. “He fell behind in his rent, just as anyone might without a roommate,” says Whalen, who works for Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation. “But he demonstrated an ability to live independently for years.” More to the point, the man did not want to leave his apartment.
Whalen worked out an agreement with the landlord and found the tenant an emergency grant for the rest of the back rent. According to Whalen, Marshall refused to go along with the new plan. Outraged, he convinced the judge to dismiss her. “A guardian shouldn’t compromise the tenant’s rights willy-nilly,” he says. “Her job was to protect the tenant in Housing Court. So by surrendering the apartment, how are you doing your job?”
Marshall’s response is that caseworkers at the tenant’s social service agency told her “they felt he’d be better off in a supervised setting.” She agreed with them. “I don’t see anything wonderful about being demented, alone, tripping over things.”
One thing that both sides agree on is that PSA itself is a big part of the problem. In another contentious case, Marshall arranged for an alcoholic 65-year-old Manhattanite to move to an adult residence in the Bronx. “He had a pacemaker hanging out of his chest, with the wire sticking out several inches,” she recalls. “He was totally filthy, charcoal gray.” The man had no steady source of income to pay the huge sums of back rent he owed. At the adult home, Marshall figured, his rent would be paid for by Social Security, and someone would look after him.
SRO Law Project attorneys intervened, saying he had every right to stay in his own apartment, where he preferred to live. They negotiated a settlement that would keep the man in the building. It was too late–he lost the room he lived in–but they have since found him a new room on the East Side.
The attorneys say she didn’t even bother to look for grants to help him, but Marshall points a finger to PSA. “There was an agreement with the landlord for him to come back if PSA paid, but PSA wouldn’t pay,” she says.
Indeed, the agency is notoriously underfunded. The entire PSA budget, serving nearly 3,500 clients, has been whittled down to $23.5 million. Not only do PSA guardians have limited resources at their disposal; they receive no training in how to use them. In fact, they receive no training at all.
Also, no one evalutes the performance of these guardians–it’s up to tenant lawyers to make a stink when there’s a problem. “It has to be brought to the judge’s attention,” says Judge Gische. “There is no oversight in the courts.”
Tenant lawyers say that must change. “Having a roof over your head and whether you agree to give it up or not is a fundamental right,” says Brooklyn attorney Luttwak. “Given the power these guardians have, it should be taken more seriously.”
Willie Gilyard and his daughter are taking it very seriously. This summer, Sampson plans to submit Gilyard’s hearing transcripts and legal documents to the court in an effort to get Betty Marshall disbarred. Attorneys call it a long shot, but Sampson is determined to avenge her father.
“To find out a court could put his life in the hands of someone who doesn’t know him and does not care about him, and allow them to decide their life without consulting the person or their family is completely cruel,” says Sampson. “She could have done so much damage…everything he had worked for all his life could have been gone.”
Elise Labott is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.