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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Daily News
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Tenant advocates’ coalition launches Brooklyn Housing Court reform campaign

Overcrowding and confusing procedures at Brooklyn Housing Court put tenants at a big disadvantage in legal disputes with landlords, a scathing new report has found.

“Landlord attorneys are granted special privileges and a culture of disrespect towards tenants has been allowed to permeate Brooklyn Housing Court,” says the report from Make the Road New York, which is joining with other nonprofits Wednesday to campaign for changes at the 141 Livingston St. facility.

Leaders of this coalition met with Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher last month to recommend changes.

Some problems highlighted in the report stem from disrepair at the aging downtown Brooklyn office building, which belongs to landlord David Bistricer, whom Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has branded a slumlord. The city should move the court out of the building when its leases runs out in 2014 — and in the meantime make improvements to the current facilities, which are “grossly inadequate” for the court’s heavy case load, the report said.

“Court is a place where people should be able to find justice — but tenants can’t at Brooklyn Housing Court,” said Hilary Klein, lead organizer of Make the Road New York.

The report calls for a code of conduct for court staff about treating tenants fairly and an end to “special treatment” of landlords’ lawyers — like reserved seating for attorneys near the judges.

Between 90% and 95% of tenants in Brooklyn Housing Court don’t have lawyers, compared with just 15% of landlords. Non-lawyers who can’t fit into crowded courtrooms are sent outside to hallways. If they don’t hear their names being called, they default their cases.

“Tenants are belittled all the time; they feel powerless,” said Jonathan Furlong of Pratt Area Community Council, which is involved in the reform campaign.

“The court is designed for assembly-line justice,” said Zoilo Torres of the Fifth Avenue Committee, another coalition member.

Judge Fisher, who’s in charge of housing courts citywide, told the Daily News she’ll implement some recommendations. She’ll put benches in court hallways and post easier-to-read signs about where in the building to find lawyers who can offer information and advice. Also, judge’s rules will be posted in every courtroom, explaining how litigants check in and how cases are called.

The judge is considering recommendations like putting loudspeakers in hallways and printing cards for court interpreters to hand out, which explain their role is not to provide legal advice.

She’s also looking into requiring disclosures on pre-printed stipulation forms that lawyers use to write settlements between landlords and tenants. Some tenants mistakenly think the forms are court documents, and must be signed.

She will also consider making interpreters of non-mainstream languages available by phone for elderly and disabled tenants so they needn’t make return visits to court.

“Other recommendations are not feasible because of budget limitations or other resource limitations,” she said.

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