With the odds stacked against them, many low-income residents who enter housing court are pressured into doing things they normally wouldn’t with the proper legal representation. However, that’s just one of the many disadvantages that residents have when battling landlords and unforgiving judges in housing court.
At the New Settlement Community Center in the Bronx, a couple of advocacy groups presented a new report detailing just how one-sided the game can be. Titled “Tipping the Scales: A Report of Tenant Experiences in Bronx Housing Court,” the New Settlement Apartments’ Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the Community Development Project (CDP) at the Urban Justice Center collected over 1,000 surveys, conducted three different focus groups and observed 15 different court appearances to conclude that the scales are tipped heavily against the residents.
“The research shows that confusing court policies and procedures are systematically disadvantaging tenants in Bronx Housing Court and leading to a huge number of evictions,” said Lindsay Cattell, research and policy associate at the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. “Housing court policies and procedures need to be reformed to ensure that we have a balanced justice system.”
According to the report, 83 percent of tenants reported not having a lawyer when entering court, while 98 percent of landlords do. Many tenants reported not knowing where to go or what to do and have very little information made available to them to make the right decisions. As a result, many tenants end up signing stipulations that they either don’t agree with or don’t understand due to pressure from the landlords’ representation or the judge. Twenty-six percent of tenants reported that no one explained the stipulations to them, while 77 percent of tenants didn’t help write the stipulations that they agreed to.
Over 2,000 tenants, mostly low-income people of color, deal with Bronx Housing Court on a daily basis without the necessary resources or legal representation. According to the report, this leads to preventable evictions with almost 11,000 Bronx families evicted annually. Over 40 percent of tenants never speak to a judge about their case even though judges are supposed to advise them when they don’t have an attorney. Judges are so overwhelmed with cases that they can’t see every tenant.
Carmen Vega-Rivera, a tenant and CASA leader who provided those in attendance at New Settlement an account of her two-decade-long fight with her landlord, talked about the lack of dignity she experienced in housing court.
“Navigating the Bronx Housing Court system has been the most confusing, humiliating and challenging experience,” said Vega-Rivera. “Although you are told you have rights, no one tells you how to go about exercising and implementing them. Resources and legal representation are few and far between. The Bronx Housing Court needs to make drastic changes, if it’s truly about balancing the scales of justice.”
The report also chronicled a day in the life of two average tenants in housing court. Starting with lines out of the building at 8:30 a.m., one tenant left at 12:30 p.m. after signing a stipulation they didn’t understand and another with actual legal representation didn’t leave until 3 in the afternoon with an adjournment made and a new date for a court case set.
As a result of these problems, CASA and the CDP have made several recommendations on ways to improve the housing court process, including banning pre-printed stipulations, improving the quality of language access for non-English speakers, requiring the judge to provide the tenant with a standardized presentation of court procedures and tenants’ rights, requiring court attorneys to be present at the beginning of negotiations between tenants and the landlord’s attorneys and improving the litigants’ general experience at housing court by implementing changes such as lifting the ban on bringing food into the building.