Brooklyn’s housing court, where judges are supposed to settle landlord-tenant arguments with an even hand, is doing little more than helping building owners throw renters out on the street, according to activists and local pols.
A coalition of tenant organizations and elected officials descended on Borough Hall on Thursday evening to put housing court on trial with a mock hearing meant to send the message that the system needs reform now.
“I think the housing court forgot why it was set up in the first place,” said Delcina Biggs, a Pratt Area Community Council tenant leader who spent four years fighting off a bogus eviction. “Now it’s all about landlords getting their money.”
Housing court handles complaints from landlords trying to toss their tenants and from renters who have trouble getting owners to fix up their buildings. Advocates contend that the system is slanted in favor of owners, which they say you can see clear as day if you consider the fact that 14 of 15 courtrooms in Brooklyn’s housing court are dedicated to eviction proceedings, while just one handles tenant complaints.
“Equality does not live in housing court right now,” said Assemblyman Walter Mosely (D–Fort Greene), in his testimony at the elaborate fake hearing in Borough Hall’s ceremonial courtroom, where, incidentally, court scenes on the TV show “Law and Order” were filmed.
Tenant leaders posed as witnesses and talked about the issues tenants encounter in the courts after remarks from Borough President Adams, Public Advocate Letitia James, and other officials.
Biggs’ story has as many twists and turns as advocates say the court system does. She lived in the same rent-stabilized apartment on E. 17th Street in Flatbush for 30 years and her landlord never pursued a major rent increase. But when her building was bought in 2009, the new owner tried to get her to sign bogus leases dating back five years in order to justify a massive rent hike.
When she refused, he tried to evict her. The case dragged on for years.
“It had become so twisted because everything was based on fraudulent papers,” said Michael Grinthal, a lawyer for Mobilization For Youth Legal Services, which provides legal representation to people who cannot afford attorneys.
The eviction bid was eventually thrown out, but without a connection to an advocacy group like the Pratt Area Community Council, who got Grinthal involved, Biggs might still be fighting it, said Jonathon Furlong, an organizer with the council.
The problem of landlord supremacy extends to the courthouse at 141 Livingston St., said the pols, pointing out that the city rents the building from David Bistricer, a big-time landowner who made now-Mayor DeBlasio’s list of worst landlords in the city back in 2010, when DeBlasio was public advocate. The space is run-down, too small to handle today’s caseloads, and is difficult for disabled people to access, tenants said. They demanded more translators, better legal services, and easier access to information about how the byzantine court proceedings work.
The protest was organized by Brooklyn Tenants United, a consortium of community organizations from across the borough that includes Saint Nick’s Alliance, the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, and the Fifth Avenue Committee.