In Bronx Housing Court, tenants fight to stay in their homes

Rocío Quero Yescas is 56 years old, walks with a cane and is afraid of tripping and falling because the floor tiles in her apartment are peeling off.

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

Julio Rodríguez and his 81-year-old mother have been battling noisy neighbors for months and want to force the landlord to take action.

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

More than 171,500 eviction petitions were filed in New York housing court in 2019, the year before the pandemic closed the courts. Now, the courts are starting to wake up, lifting pandemic restrictions and resuming in-person appearances. The halls begin to fill once again with tenants, landlords, and their attorneys. More than a third of all new eviction cases are in the Bronx.

The resumption of eviction cases comes at a time when New Yorkers are under pressure from soaring inflation and record rents. On Tuesday, a regulatory panel approved a 3.25 percent increase in one-year leases for rent-stabilized housing, a move that will affect roughly two million city residents.

Every morning, a line forms outside the Bronx Housing Court, as anxious tenants wait under the scaffolding that now covers a section of the front of the building while work is done to repair a leaky roof. Most mornings, the line stretches out to the sidewalk, where a food truck sells egg sandwiches and hot coffee to those who skipped breakfast to get there early.

Inside the courthouse, it’s not like it used to be, observers say. Before the pandemic, the hallways and courtrooms were packed with attorneys and tenants. On a recent day, an eerie silence hid a tension simmering beneath the proceedings. Financial help for renters is shrinking as pandemic relief programs run out of money. And since the state’s eviction moratorium ended in January, New York housing court filings have increased.

Eviction caseloads are still well below pre-pandemic levels, and court officials say they are trying to prevent caseloads from becoming overwhelming by clearing the backlog.

“It’s much lower than it was before the pandemic,” said Jean T. Schneider, supervising judge of the New York City Housing Court. “There just isn’t an explosion of submissions.”

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

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

Now, Gay said, the landlord has been harassing her and blocking access to her apartment, for which she pays about $1,200 a month. Until she finds a lawyer, she is prepared to fight alone. “I have a son with special needs and I can’t live like this,” she said.

The dam will break, said Raven S. Dorantes, managing attorney for the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project. It’s just a matter of time.

“You’re going to see a lot more people at their breaking point,” he said.

Upstairs in the Bronx Housing Court, a large courtroom on the second floor has been converted into an intake room where tenants can seek legal representation, search cases and file documents themselves. Two stations are set up for tenants who can only get a virtual look, but don’t have a computer or Wi-Fi access and therefore must show up in person.

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

At the end of the hallway, 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 Rodríguez was waiting there with his mother, Ligia. After years of substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness and bad credit, Mr. Rodriguez found a landlord willing to give him a shot at an apartment in Morris Park for $1,950 a month. Shortly after moving in, though, the upstairs neighbors started making “a ridiculous amount of noise,” he said.

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

Due to a previous eviction, he said he didn’t want to move. So she went to housing court to force his landlord to act. “He’s just waiting for me to get tired and move out,” he said, “and I’m not in a position to do it because of the headache I had getting this place.”

The help desk is also available to owners. Marco Villegas, owner of nine buildings in the Bronx, most of them in the Morrisania neighborhood, sat on a bench with his daughter, hoping to resolve a problem with a tenant for non-payment of rent.

“This is the first time I’ve been back in court after Covid,” he said. “I don’t know if the calm reflects real life or just a change in the way the process is done.”

Mr. Villegas said that he viewed his tenants as his greatest asset; without them, he couldn’t pay his bills. He prefers a community-based approach, where landlords build relationships with their tenants. For him, an eviction filing is the last resort.

And a legal fight can be expensive. He said the initial fees were $2,500 to file paperwork and get two court hearings. To turn over an apartment, including repairs and finding a new tenant, the cost can be as high as $30,000, she said.

Mr. Villegas, who rents 30 units in all, is frustrated that he feels housing court is targeting larger landlords who have money and connections. “My access to resources is very different,” he said.

Even landlords with more units find evictions a nuisance. Court battles are also time consuming and costly for them, said Lisa Gomez, executive director of L&M Development Partners, which manages about 20,000 units of affordable housing in New York. “There are no advantages to going to court,” she said.

Some of New York’s largest affordable homeowners say they would prefer to avoid a court fight altogether. The pandemic has given them time to rethink their relationships with tenants, said Adam Weinstein, CEO of Phipps Houses.

To help ease the looming gridlock in the courts, Phipps has dropped half of his pending cases. “It’s not just a liability, it’s in the interest of the owners,” he said. “An eviction is just a vacancy, and a vacancy is a loss.”

The New York City Housing Authority, which owns 11 percent of the city’s population, is also rethinking its approach, said Lisa Bova-Hiatt, NYCHA general counsel. The city agency has suspended 90 percent of its eviction cases and will instead focus on administration, working with tenants before a problem becomes a crisis.

“We decided there has to be a better way to do this,” he said. “We have to do better to keep people housed.”

Housing advocates take this approach. “Ideally, yes, we would all work together before someone gets entangled in the legal system,” said Runa Rajagopal, managing director of the civil action practice at Bronx Defenders, a public defender.

Despite efforts to prevent a flood of eviction filings, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are facing eviction: 121,473 new cases have been filed in New York’s housing courts since March 15, 2020, according to the Housing Law Laboratory. Princeton evictions. More than a third of those filings, 41,988, are in the Bronx alone.

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

On the fifth floor of the Bronx Housing Court, Ms. Dorantes of the Urban Justice Center represented Kenya Whitt, a tenant who has not worked since she was beaten unconscious by a patient at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she was a nurse.

Out of work, Ms. Whitt, 46, has been unable to pay the rent on her University Heights apartment. Her landlord, however, claims that she is receiving income and is seeking late payments.

“This is my first time in court and I’m not up to speed on how things work,” he said, looking at Ms. Dorantes, who was on her way to the courtroom to appear before the judge.

Mrs. Dorantes reappeared a few minutes later; the case has been adjourned until July 20.

“We can’t help people fast enough,” he said. “Tenants fall through the cracks.”

That day, the hole in the ceiling above Judge Diane E. Lutwak’s courtroom brought people into the hallway, where they lingered and waited for guidance.

Among them was Rocío Quero Yescas, who sat with her 26-year-old daughter, Stephane Martínez-Quero, while her attorney met with Judge Lutwak. They were trying to resolve a dispute with the landlord over the flooring in their Jerome Park apartment, for which they pay $1,173 a month.

His mother noticed the smell first, Martínez-Quero said. “She thought it was mold, but it was the wood that was decomposing.” A leaky radiator had damaged the wooden floor and now the tiles that covered it were peeling off.

But some attempts by the landlord to fix the problem were unsuccessful, so Ms. Quero Yescas filed a complaint with the city. In response, her daughter said, the landlord is trying to evict them.

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

“Landlords often try to fix things cheaply,” Ms. Maris said. Through an interpreter, she explained to Mrs. Quero Yescas and her daughter how the meeting with the judge went. “We ask for a continuance to give the owner time to make the repairs. Hopefully, they will drop his case.”

Tomorrow will bring a new wave of renters seeking help, and advocates say they will do their best, despite the increased load.

“The right to an attorney was this big thing that the city decided to do; it could be a great model for others across the country,” said Donna Dougherty, senior director of legal services for elder justice at JASA, a service for older New Yorkers. “If we fail because of the pandemic, it will be tragic.”

kirsten-noyes contributed research.

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