NYCHA's relentless drive to evict tenants
By SUSAN LIPPMAN
NYCHA tenants are treated like cattle, or worse, in Queens Housing Court.
“Vivian,” the tenant whom I have written about several times, had to go to court, as NYCHA is still wrongfully trying to evict her. Their excuse is that her name is not on the lease. To refresh your memory, for many years Vivian was residing with her very mentally-ill brother, whose was the leaseholder. “Vinny" had died recently. Although Vivian had requested succession rights, NYCHA was adamantly against it. Despite having presented her birth certificate and her brother’s, NYCHA refused to accept that documentation as sufficient evidence that she and her brother were kin.
That refusal makes no sense to anyone with whom I have spoken to, including attorneys.
NYCHA has a policy of evicting tenants like Vivian, who are not leaseholders and officially dubbed, “licensees,” even when NYCHA is obviously at fault.
Vivian wound up in court. I accompanied her. Even though it wasn’t my case, I was so upset by what I observed in that kangaroo court that I could barely function for the rest of the day.
Here’s what happened and what I observed. There were 96 people on the docket. The place was so packed that there was standing room only inside the courtroom and in the hallway, where lots of people were sitting on benches (if they were lucky enough to get seats), waiting for their names to be called. Names were called inside the courtroom and in the hallway. There were people in wheelchairs, others using walkers and canes. There were people of all ages. The overwhelming majority were Latino and African-American. Some people brought their children with them.
There were lots of people awaiting trial, and there were those who accompanied them, including friends, spouses and children. There were attorneys, most of whom represented NYCHA, always literally vs. the tenants. There were also court officials and police officers. The atmosphere was extremely tense. The waiting felt interminable for some. Vivian was number 86. Although tenants are required to be in court at 9 AM, court almost never starts until around 10 AM. Vivian was number 86. Her name was called around 11:30 AM. She requested an adjournment in order to get representation from Legal Services. The adjournment was granted. The entire case took no more than 20 minutes.
Why were so many NYCHA tenants in Housing Court in the first place? Although I didn’t officially interview anyone, I couldn’t help but overhear people’s conversations. I heard several times that NYCHA wanted possession of the apartment, as in Vivian’s case. Others had been told to withhold their rent, as NYCHA had failed to make necessary repairs. Often the cases will be adjourned and tenants ordered to pay the rent and promised that the repairs will be made. However, the repairs are seldom made and the process begins all over again. One woman complained of a leak that was causing mold and exacerbating her asthma and arthritis.
Judges in Queens Housing Court are pro-Landlord
In Housing Court, there is no privacy. Everyone can hear your case. One thing is all too evident, though, and that is that the judges in Queens Housing Court are pro-landlord, and the deck is brutally stacked against the tenants. NYCHA’s policy is to throw out “licensees,” like Vivian, thereby causing most of those tenants to become homeless, since they are poor and cannot afford the exorbitant rents in this city. Furthermore, once a person has been evicted, even through no fault of her/his own, it becomes a nightmare to find an apartment. Homelessness is at record highs in New York City, thanks to the marriage of politics and real estate and the funds that are given to both major political parties by the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY.
While there is a lot of sweet talk about attempts to reduce homelessness, NYCHA’s policies obviously do the reverse.
A Web site from tenant lawyers tells “licensees” like Vivian to seek alternative housing, since they are almost never allowed to stay in their homes.
Where are the voices of protest against these heartless policies among so-called progressive politicians? I haven’t seen or heard one single voice of dissent.
In 2013, an article published by The New York Daily News noted that NYCHA spends more on its 98 lawyers than it does on repairs. I haven’t been able to find more recent statistics on this issue, but, since, then there have been even more cuts to NYCHA, and people are becoming more and more aware of the movement toward privatization of public housing, despite massive community opposition.
The City Council recently passed a bill that will eventually guarantee that all tenants are represented in Housing Court. This legislation, in my view, in a mere drop in the bucket in terms of what needs to be done. Here’s why.
The right to representation in Housing Court was not extended to all public housing tenants, revealing a glaring loophole for those, with the least. And even the best attorneys seldom win against the judges, who, as stated above, are overwhelmingly pro-landlord. And once a decision is made in Housing Court, a NYCHA tenant is not allowed to appeal, particularly in eviction actions. The merits of the case are all too often completely disregarded.
NYCHA denies tenants a right-to-succession and seeks eviction
If NYCHA’s policy is to throw out tenants whose names are not on the lease, then even the best tenant lawyer in New York City won’t be able to be successful when attempting to represent tenants. If tenants fall on hard times and cannot pay the rent, why is there not a rent subsidy for them ? After all, there are always enormous tax breaks available for wealthy landlords and developers.
So here’s my proposal. Eliminate housing courts altogether. After all, today it’s little more than an eviction court, disrupting the lives of thousands of poor New Yorkers. Instead, immediately change NYCHA’s policy so that when a leaseholder dies or moves out, the remaining tenant’s name will automatically become the new leaseholder. That move alone would prevent a fair amount of homelessness. And when tenants cannot pay the rent because they’ve lost a job, or because of exorbitant medical bills that are not covered by insurance, then there should be an emergency fund to pay their rent until they are able to get back on their feet, no matter how long that might take.
Ironically, the tenants, who have to go to Housing Court, are often the ones most vulnerable to job losses, as they often have to wait almost all day and sometimes have to appear in court three or four times, thereby causing them to lose a lot of time from their jobs. Furthermore, many low-paid workers aren’t paid a penny when they don’t show up for work, as they are very likely to be contract workers.
Housing court has no evening or weekend hours, to accommodate working people.
Let Housing Court judges find other employment, in which they are not allowed to throw people out of their homes and get paid handsomely for doing so.
Finally, forbid all politicians from accepting contributions from REBNY.
Meanwhile, though, please write letters and make phone calls, so that Vivian and others who share a similar plight can remain in their homes.
UPDATE : Legal Services claims it cannot represent Vivian, so she must request a court-appointed attorney, which will do nothing to ensure that she remains in her apartment.