Chaos Choking Housing Courts

By PAUL SCHWARTZMAN
Daily News, June 15, 1997
On any given weekday, the gray, airless halls of Brooklyn Housing Court are mobbed with befuddled, cash-poor tenants, shrieking children and gum-snapping, hair-glazed lawyers whispering on cell phones to landlord clients.

Jesus Brentos, 23, neat in a blue T-shirt and starched jeans, baby-stepped his way into this vortex of misery and chaos last week with his girlfriend, Jessica, 17, and their 10-month-old daughter, Jasmine.

While Jessica chewed on a fingernail, Brentos squinted at eviction papers that said he not only owes $1,172 to his landlord, but that he was two weeks late for his court appearance.

"I don't know where I'm supposed to go; I don't know who I should see," he murmured, his halting English swallowed by a nearby tenant shouting at a landlord. "I don't understand none of this."

Nearly 25 years after their creation, the city's housing courts tribunals of last resort for tens of thousands of tenants and landlords are overcrowded, confusing and infuriating for nearly everyone who uses them.

With rent regulations on the brink of expiration, and with Gov. Pataki and state lawmakers negotiating potentially epic changes to those regulations, the courts face the prospect of being inundated with a torrent of new cases.

Already, the system's 35 judges are saddled with some 300,000 cases annually. That's about 9,000 cases per judge. Or five to 10 minutes per case.

"The court system is bursting at the seams as it is, and this can only make things significantly worse from everyone's perspective," said Robert Salzman, a tenants' lawyer. "There's going to be a flood of new litigation. Everyone will be testing what will be unknown territory."

Brooklyn Housing Court Judge Bruce Gould said any fallout from changes in the rent regulations is more than the system can currently handle. "We would all agree that it's too overcrowded," the judge said."There's no breathing time."

Not to mention air to breathe.

Crammed into tiny courtrooms and dirty corridors slimmer than many subway platforms, housing courts across the city are a menagerie of despair and menace, where judges are advised to doff their robes before walking halls crowded with tenants.

"You could be a target," said Bronx Housing Court Judge Anthony Fiorella, who has taped to his courtroom door a hand-scrawled sign reading: "No Shorts. No Tank Tops. No Beepers. No Radios."

In the Bronx, where most of the courtrooms are located in the bowels of the county courthouse at 161st St. and the Grand Concourse, medics routinely arrive to cart off those who have fainted in the stifling heat.

One courtroom, nicknamed "the hole" with its view of a brick wall, is so small that it can fit only five or six people. "Sometimes I feel like I'm here because I didn't pay my rent," said Bronx Judge Pierre Turner, whose courtroom is twice that size.

The city's housing courts were created in 1973 to give tenants a forum to force landlords to make necessary repairs. But that high-minded intent has deteriorated into a reality in which 90% of cases are brought by landlords demanding unpaid rent.

Last year, tenants filed only 9,805 maintenance cases against landlords, winning about half of them. Landlords, meanwhile, brought 318,305 nonpayment cases against tenants. They won about 273,000.

Most tenants believe they are victims in the process. About 90% arrive in court without lawyers because they can't afford one. Because housing is part of Civil Court, not Criminal Court, the state is not obligated to provide them with legal counsel.

In contrast, landlords are represented by attorneys in 98% of the cases, according to a recent study by the independent Fund for a Modern Court.

As a result, in most nonpayment cases, tenants and landlord attorneys hash out reimbursement plans in the hallways, atop trash cans or radiators.

Tenant advocates say that in many cases, the tenants don't know what they are signing.

"The atmosphere, the short attention span, the pressure on the court calendar all these things lean against the tenant," said Jerry O'Shea, director of the Brooklyn Tenants Council.

Yet landlords counter that the system, with its delays and adjournments, is stacked against them. Judges, they point out, evict tenants in fewer than 10% of the cases.

"The system overwhelmingly works for the tenant," said Burton Gelfand, a landlord lawyer for more than 20 years. "Even if you get the judgment, you don't get the money. Everything takes too long."

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, said tenants don't need lawyers.

"They have a lawyer it's called a Housing Court judge," Strasburg said. "Most of the judges are former Legal Aid people and tenant lawyers. Housing Court is seen as the last barrier to preventing homelessness. It's not. It's supposed to resolve disputes quickly, not prolong them."

Court officials insist improvements are on the way. The proposed state budget calls for five additional housing judges, and the system's chief administrator, Judge Fern Fisher-Brandveen, wants 25 more judges.

A courthouse only for housing cases is supposed to open in the Bronx in September.

"We're trying to put a new face on Housing Court," said Fisher-Brandveen. "We want it to be more accessible, more humane."

A glimpse at the fourth-floor hallway in Brooklyn Housing Court last week suggested that will not be easy.

"My landlord stole my cat," Debra Bliliuos said, in the course of explaining that she stopped paying her $850 rent last March because the same landlord turned off her heat.

In a nearby courtroom, Judge Peter Wendt rubbed his eyes while an interpreter tried yet again to translate a question about an electricity bill to a Russian immigrant.

In the third row, a woman was reading a book titled, "Tongues, Interpretations and Prophecy."

The courtroom door opened.

"You got your rent, now leave me alone!" a woman screamed from the hallway.