A Court Where Chaos Presides

New York Times, May 30, 1997

NEW YORK -- You have to go far to find a place where the clamor is greater than in the corridors of Brooklyn's housing court. Maybe the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Or the kick-boxing arena in Bangkok.

But even those places, pound for pound, have got nothing on housing court (formally, the Landlord-Tenant Part of Civil Court). There dozens of tenants, landlords and lawyers stand by the elevator bank engaged in a free-for-all of threatening, wheedling and bargaining before taking their disputes into the outsized closets called courtrooms. Riots have been known to be quieter.

The din can be unnerving, and it reverberates inside the courtrooms. At best, it makes a mockery of what your fifth-grade social-studies teacher said about the majesty of the judicial system.

"He harasses me all the time, or he sends his son around to harass me," a woman shouts to her Legal Aid lawyer.

"He doesn't even live there, so why can't I put a new tenant in?" a landlord says to his lawyer.

"How's it my fault I got backed up on the rent when the disability check didn't come?" a tenant complains.

"Chaos," "zoo" and "disgrace" are only some of the words used by experts to describe housing court -- in all boroughs, not just Brooklyn. "If we weren't here," said Bruce Gould, a judge in Brooklyn, "the court system would fall right out, because we're holding it up from the bottom."

The strain on that bottom, some judges and lawyers warn, may become great if existing rent regulations are significantly altered in Albany, a possibility that looms ever larger as a mid-June deadline approaches.

(You would think that a delicate matter like rent regulation, so much a part of the very fabric of New York City, would be re-examined in a thoughtful way, perhaps by a broadly representative commission, as Cardinal John O'Connor has recommended. Instead, it is business as usual in Albany, with the political parties treating issues like the rent question as though they were nothing more than cudgels, useful only for clubbing the other side into submission.)

Consider housing court's woes. There are only 35 judges, and they had to cope last year with a staggering 303,000 cases, or roughly 9,000 each.

In reality, the burden on the judges is not quite so onerous, because many litigants fail to show up. Even so, it is not unheard of for a judge to handle as many as 90 cases a day, with only a few minutes to devote to each one.

Cases have been known to meander along for months, which is one reason that landlords want tenants to have to deposit rent money in an escrow account during disputes, a proposal waved off by the tenants as effectively imposing an admission fee on them to get into court.

What may happen if the laws are appreciably changed and allowable rents shoot up? It doesn't take an alarmist to foresee a heavier courtload, with more apartment dwellers refusing to pay higher rents and more landlords standing accused of harassing tenants to force them out.

"That court's already about to blow up, and the situation will only be exacerbated," said Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, who heads the Housing Committee. In less explosive language, Fern Fisher-Brandveen, the Civil Court administrative judge, agreed.

What to do is pretty obvious: hire more judges. The proposed state budget for 1997-98, assuming it ever gets passed, provides for five extra housing judges. Judge Fisher-Brandveen wants to increase the total eventually to 60 from the present 35. Lopez suggests going even further and adding 50 new judges.

But more is involved than numbers. All parties still have to be convinced that this court is truly an impartial body.

Many tenants feel the deck is stacked against them, in part because those who end up in court tend to have no legal representation and, as often as not, are poor.

In contrast, landlords usually come well-armed with lawyers. For their part, apartment owners complain that judges as a group favor tenants, because they are routinely chosen from the ranks of Legal Aid lawyers who view housing court as the last defense against homelessness.

The ingrained distrust was apparent in Brooklyn the other day when a judge urged a tenant to work things out with the landlord's lawyer. "He's going to be very gracious and very gentlemanly," the judge said of the lawyer.

"He's a -- ," the tenant replied, using a word that was neither gracious nor gentlemanly.

Ah, elusive harmony.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company