In Bronx housing court, tenants struggle to stay in their homes

Rossio Cuero Iscas, 56, walks with a stick, afraid she will trip and fall because the floor tiles in her apartment keep peeling.

Kenya Witt, a former psychiatric nurse, has been unable to pay the rent since she was attacked by a patient and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Julio Rodriguez and his 81-year-old mother have struggled for months with noisy neighbors, wanting to force the owner to take action.

Each of them ended up in Bronx housing court in early June, searching for answers in a Byzantine maze of papers, negotiations and hearings.

More than 171,500 eviction applications were filed in New York housing court in 2019, a year before the pandemic broke out with court closures. Now, the courts are waking up again, getting rid of the epidemic restrictions and resuming appearing in person. The corridors began to fill up again with tenants, landlords and their attorneys. More than a third of all new evictions are in the Bronx.

The resumption of eviction cases comes at a time when New Yorkers are under pressure from high inflation and record rents. On Tuesday, a regulatory committee approved a 3.25 percent increase in one-year leases for stable homes, a move that will affect nearly two million residents in the city.

Every morning, a line forms in front of housing court in the Bronx, as anxious tenants wait under the scaffolding that now covers part of the front of the building while they work to fix a leaky roof. Most mornings, the line runs down the sidewalk, where the food truck sells egg sandwiches and hot coffee for those who skip breakfast to arrive early.

Inside the courtroom, observers say, it wasn’t what it used to be. Before the pandemic, corridors and courtrooms were bustling with lawyers and tenants. In one recent day, a strange calm hid a tension under the weight of the proceedings. Financial aid for renters is dwindling as pandemic relief funds run out. And since the state’s eviction moratorium expired in January, filings in New York housing courts have soared.

The number of evictions remains well below pre-pandemic levels, and court officials say they are trying to prevent the caseload from becoming onerous by ending the backlog.

“It’s much lower than it was in the pre-pandemic period,” said Jean T. Schneider, the superintendent of the New York City Housing Court. “There is no explosion in filings.”

But for tenants facing eviction, the first trip to the courtroom can be daunting. Some tenants are directed upstairs for court appearances, while others are sent to the information desk on the first floor, where they can obtain papers, file complaints and even pay arrears.

On a recent Monday, Michelle Patterson Gay waited to file a complaint against the homeowner trying to evict her. She lives in Soundview with her 17-year-old daughter Essence, who has learning disabilities, and says she had an agreement to leave in March 2020, but her landlord kept cashing rent checks, which called off the deal.

Now, Ms. Jay said, the homeowner is harassing her and denying access to her apartment, for which she pays about $1,200 a month. Until she finds a lawyer, she is ready to fight on her own. “I have a child with special needs, and I can’t live like this,” she said.

Durantes, the administrative deputy for the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the dam would explode. It is only a matter of time.

“You will see a lot of people at the breaking point,” she said.

Upstairs in the Bronx Housing Court, a large second-floor courtroom has been converted into a reception room where tenants can request legal representation, research cases, and file papers themselves. Two stations are set up for tenants who can only have a virtual appearance, but do not have a computer or Wi-Fi connection and therefore must appear in person.

Miriam Maldonado, who was seeking repairs to her apartment, sat in front of a large screen for 20 minutes, hoping to connect with a lawyer, only to be told she was there on the wrong day. Another tenant, Niktor Caro, showed up for a virtual meeting with a representative from Mobilization for Justice, a Bronx-based legal services provider, who said the agency could not take on any other cases, but would contact him by phone and provide free legal advice.

Down the hall, a long table served as a makeshift help desk, with a desktop computer at one end and a bilingual court clerk at the other.

Julio Rodriguez was waiting there with his mother, Ligia. After years of drug abuse, mental health problems, homelessness and bad credit, Mr. Rodriguez found an owner willing to give him a chance at an apartment in Morris Park for $1,950 a month. Soon after moving in, upstairs neighbors started making “a ridiculous amount of noise,” he said.

“We didn’t really want to start complaining about anything because we were lucky to be there,” said Mr. Rodriguez. But he added, “My quality of life was deteriorating at a rapid pace.”

He said he was reluctant to move because of the previous eviction. So he came to the housing court to force the owner to act. He said, “He’s just waiting for me to get upset and move, and I’m not in a position to do that because of the headaches I’ve had to get this place.”

The help desk is also available for landlords. Marco Villegas, who owns nine buildings in the Bronx, mostly in the Morisania neighborhood, sat on a bench with his daughter, hoping to resolve an issue with the tenant over non-payment of rent.

“This is the first time I am back in court after Covid,” he said. “I don’t know how if the calm reflects real life or just a shift in how the operation is carried out.”

Mr. Villegas said that he viewed the tenants as his greatest wealth; Without them, he couldn’t pay his bills. He favors a community-based approach, where landlords build relationships with tenants. For him, seeking an evacuation is a last resort.

The legal battle can be costly. He said the upfront fee was $2,500 to file the papers and hold two court hearings. He said that to hand over an apartment, including making repairs and finding a new tenant, the cost could reach $30,000.

Mr Villegas, who rents out 30 units in total, is frustrated because he feels the housing court is geared towards larger landlords with money and connections. “My access to resources is completely different,” he said.

Even landlords with more units find evictions a problem. Lisa Gomez, CEO of L&M Development Partners, which operates about 20,000 affordable housing units in New York, said court battles are time-consuming and expensive for them, too. “There is no point in going to court,” she said.

Some large owners of affordable New York City say they’d rather avoid a court battle altogether. Adam Weinstein, CEO of Phipps Houses, said the pandemic has given them time to rethink their relationships with tenants.

To help alleviate a looming impasse in the courts, Phipps has withdrawn half of its pending cases. “It’s not just a responsibility,” he said, “it’s in the owners’ interest.” “Eviction is just a vacancy, and a vacancy is a loss.”

NYCHA general counsel Lisa Buffa-Hyatt said the New York City Housing Authority, which owns 11% of the city’s population, is rethinking its approach as well. Management, working with tenants before the problem turns into a crisis.

“We decided there had to be a better way for that,” she said. “We have to do better to keep people in shelter.”

Housing advocates adopt this approach. “Ideally, yes, we would all work together before anyone gets involved in the legal system,” said Rhona Rajagopal, managing director of the civil procedure practice for Bronx Defenders, a public defender.

Despite efforts to prevent a flood of eviction filings, tens of thousands of New Yorkers face eviction: 121,473 new cases have been filed in New York housing courts since March 15, 2020, according to the Princeton Eviction Lab. More than a third of these deposits – 41,988 – are in the Bronx alone.

Oftentimes, the eviction battle arises due to issues beyond the tenant’s control, such as a simple mistake in paperwork or a job loss.

On the fifth floor of the housing court in the Bronx, Ms. Durants of the Urban Justice Center was representing Kenya Witt, a tenant who had not worked since losing consciousness by a patient at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she was a nurse.

With no job, the 46-year-old Ms. Waite was unable to pay the rent for her apartment in University Heights. However, the homeowner claims that she is earning income and is seeking arrears.

“This is my first time in court, and I’m not aware of how things are,” she said, looking at Mrs. Durantes, who was heading to the courtroom to appear before the judge.

Mrs. Durantes reappeared a few minutes later; The case was adjourned to July 20.

“We can’t help people fast enough,” she said. “Tenants are falling through the cracks.”

On that day, digging on the roof above Judge Diane E. Luttwak’s courtroom led people out into the driveway, where they waited for guidance.

Among them was Rossio Cuero Iscas, who sat with her 26-year-old daughter, Stephane Martinez-Quero, while their lawyer met with Judge Luttwak. They were trying to resolve the dispute with the landlord over the land in their apartment in Jerome Park, for which they pay $1,173 a month.

Ms. Martinez-Quero said her mother noticed the smell first. “I thought it was rotten, but the wood was decaying.” The coolant leak damaged the wood floor, and now the tiles covering it are peeling off.

But some attempts by the owner to fix the problem were unsuccessful, so Ms. Cuero Whiskas lodged a complaint with the city. Her daughter said in response, that the owner is trying to evacuate them.

A social worker at Part of the Solution, an emergency services provider in the Bronx, referred them to Elizabeth Maris, the supervising attorney at the agency.

“Landlords often try to fix things inexpensively,” said Ms. Maris. Through an interpreter, she explained to Ms. Quiro Iscas and her daughter how the meeting with the judge went. “We have asked to postpone the hearing to give the landlord time to make the repairs. I hope they will withdraw their case.”

Tomorrow will bring a new wave of renters asking for help, and advocates say they will do everything they can, despite the increased burden.

“The right to counsel was a great thing the city decided to do; it could be a great role model for others across the country,” said Donna Dougherty, senior director of Legal Services for Seniors at JASA, a service for seniors in New York. Because of the pandemic, that would be tragic.”

Kirsten Noyes Contribute to research.

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