Strapped Tenants Head to Housing Court

These are the lines on a good day. (Marangelis Uben)

By Jason Smith and Marangelis Uben

Jose Antonio walked into the Bronx Housing Court on a recent afternoon. He was there to sue his landlord, hoping to keep his apartment. “You have all this time in an apartment and you miss one day and they want to kick you out,” he said. “If you don’t have money then you’re done. It’s ridiculous and unfair. If you don’t have money in this country then you’re done!”

Nora Kenty is a young lawyer who works for tenants like Antonio. She’s seen cases involving tenant buyouts, harassment, terrible living conditions. “I have clients whose kids are sleeping in bed with roaches crawling all over them and bed bugs and holes in the ceiling. I mean it’s really terrible,”she said. She says she sees a cycle of minorities being taken advantage by their landlords.

A visit to housing court is an unique experience. To enter, everybody must go through security procedures and enter through a metal detector. On a recent day, a woman is sitting with her toddler, fiddling with a phone, in an attempt to engage her. She complains that she’s been there for hours. A couple with their two children are standing in a line 15 people deep. People are shifting from line to line; some are waiting for a translator. Some are paying off bills. The commotion and chatter occurring between judges, lawyers and their families is a constant low din. An average day for someone at housing court is from 9am to 1pm.

People across the city are in search of affordable housing, but in neighborhoods of the South Bronx median asking rent is $1,500 a month and more, according to the State of New York City Neighborhoods, 2017, a publication of the Furman Center for Real Estate at NYU. More than a third of Bronx residents, and 42 percent of low income Bronx households, pay more than half their income in rent. The median income for households in the South Bronx is $30,000 or less. It is the poorest area of NYC, with many people living below the poverty line. It is the poorest area in all of NYC.

Low incomes. High rents. The equation leads to this place on 166th Street and the Grand Concourse. Housing Court, waiting in these lines. It also leads to the displacement of lower income families. When tenants enter housing court, many times the conflict is not resolved. Ray Sacks, the client supervisor of Bronx Housing Court, says that clients aren’t entitled to an attorney and their court date will differ based on the severity of the case.

Based on the kind of case and proceeding the client goes through, cases can take months or years to resolve. Usually the tenants are the defendants, brought to court by their landlords for failure to pay rent. But sometimes the tenants are the plaintiffs, bringing their landlord to court over unsafe conditions, or because he is harassing them, trying to get them out of their apartments and get higher paying tenants in.

Rather than spend time in housing court some tenants will accept buyouts from their landlords, housing justice advocates say. The buyout is essentially a bribe for them to leave. However, it’s often too late before the tenant realizes the amount they have settled for is not enough to find another apartment in New York City.

Organizations such as the Cooper Square Committee and the Housing Conservation Coordinators are working one on one with tenants. Liam Riley, who works at the Cooper Square Committee, and Jonathan Furlong, directing organizer at the Housing Conservation Coordinators, said tenant buyouts are a way for landlords to remove rent stabilized units from the market.

With few rent stabilized apartments available, it is even harder for people to live in New York City. “It’s great in the moment but it’s not a lasting source of income,” Riley said of the amount sometimes desperate tenants are offered by landlords hoping to displace them. Tenants end up running out of the little money they were given in a heartbeat. “We’re in the middle of a housing crisis. People are really, really struggling. People are not making anymore (income) than they were 15 years ago, yet everything, food, clothing, housing, healthcare and everything is getting more expensive,” said Furlong.

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