Courts Need to Adapt to New Rights for Tenants: Report

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Adi Talwar

Bronx Housing Court.

 

More than half of Bronx tenants facing eviction in housing court were unaware of the city’s new “right to counsel” law, according to a survey conducted by a Bronx advocacy group.

The report by CASA-New Settlement and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition hails the “right to counsel” (RTC) law, along with this year’s sweeping changes to rent regulations and increased city spending to prevent displacement. But it warns, “changing legislation will not change the realities on the ground without a strong implementation process and a political will to enforce new laws by the state.”

“While RTC is a revolutionary right for New York tenants facing eviction, it will be meaningless to families who cannot access it due to language needs, lack of education on the court system or their rights, or because the court can’t meet their needs for childcare,” the report reads.

A history of problems

Bronx Housing Court has long been fraught for low-income tenants. In a 2015 series, City Limits documented resource deficiencies and procedural flaws that made the system deeply unfair and broadly inefficient.

CASA and NWBCCC say that as early as 2013, they documented some of those problems, brought them before court administrators, and secured promises for policy changes like “requiring all court staff to wear visible identification, incorporating bilingual slideshow presentations about tenants’ rights on a monitor in every courtroom, requiring judges to fully allocute stipulations, and requiring judges to give an overview of court processes when they first take the bench at 9:45 a.m.”

According to the report, while the court system has implemented its own more modest reform agenda, the promises made to advocates six years ago have not been fulfilled.

“To date, these policies have been implemented inconsistently as we have documented and witnessed through various court observations over the years,” the report read. “OCA’s role and responsibility in following commitments have left our members deeply unsatisfied.”

Asked about the claim that promises for reforms made in 2013 were not fulfilled, courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said, “Since 2016 the new Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has convened a commission that produced a report with an update on progress earlier this year outlining our focus on legitimate issues in Housing Court.”

A new right rolls out

The City Council passed the Right to Counsel bill in 2017. It guarantees a lawyer to low-income tenants facing eviction. In its first phase of operation, the right applies in 20 of the city’s ZIP Codes. By 2022, it will exist citywide. In a study released in March, the Community Service Society of New York found that RTC appeared to reduce evictions. (CSS is a funder of City Limits.)

Hoping to see how the RTC was performing in the Bronx, CASA and NWBCCC surveyed 115 tenants and observed housing court operations on 34 days from October of through December 2018.

They found that 90 percent of the tenants they spoke to came from one of the ZIP codes served by RTC. But 52 percent of those tenants “didn’t know about RTC until they first arrived to court.” Those who did know about it mostly said they’d “learned about RTC through religious leader or court personnel.”

Three in four tenants said they had repair issues in their buildings, and three in 10 “reported feeling harassed.”

The report raises the possibility that landlord lawyers have adapted to the right to counsel by arriving at the courthouse earlier than they used to, so they can negotiate with tenants before they have a chance to talk to their RTC attorney.

The court observations indicate that a small number of landlord attorneys do sometimes show up early: On more than half of the documented observations, “one to five landlords and/or their attorneys were in hallways at 8:30 a.m. with the numbers increasing over time.” Tenants sometimes spoke to landlord attorneys not knowing whom they worked for, the report said.

Seeking new rules

“All of these problems are completely preventable,” the report contended. The city bears some responsibility for improving public awareness about RTC, it said; tenant groups back a new City Council bill (Intro 1529), written by Councilmember Mark Levine and with 20 co-sponsors so far, that would require the city’s Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to collaborate with community groups on promoting public education about RTC.

But the onus is primarily on the Office of Court Administration, the report said: “OCA has an obligation and responsibility to do everything in their power to ensure that tenants know about RTC and can access their right to an attorney at every stage inside the court.”

It recommends that OCA prohibit any communication between parties before the judge takes the bench, require announcements about RTC in court hallways, monitor landlord attorneys’ conduct and make tenant attorneys wear badges so tenants know who is on their side.

Chalfen, the courts spokesperson, told City Limits that meaningful change is already underway.

“The New York State Court System funds $100 million for distribution to civil legal service providers across the State. That funding, has been a real game-changer in Housing Court by promoting a fair legal process and just outcomes for all litigants. Fully one third of tenants sued in Housing Court city-wide have legal counsel which represents a dramatic increase from the estimated 1percent of tenants having legal representation just five years ago,” he said in an emailed statement. “In addition, we are in the process of moving the Bronx Housing Court back to larger facilities at Bronx Supreme Court, and are working every day to reduce the number of ‘hallway agreements’ that are made with unrepresented litigants and to make sure that every litigant understands the consequences of the agreement they sign.”

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