By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Public Advocate Letitia James was just one of many elected officials, along with over 200 local citizens and a slew of community groups, who came to Brooklyn Borough Hall Thursday night to hold a mock trial declaring Brooklyn’s Housing Court guilty of injustice.
“The courts, unfortunately, have disadvantaged tenants and have not done enough to meet their needs,” James said of the housing court. “Justice requires that there be a fair enforcement of the law. That's what everyone is entitled to and what everyone should be provided. It appears that the courts are guilty as charged.”
Housing Court, which was nobly created to force landlords to better maintain buildings, has become an "eviction mill," Brooklyn Tenants United (BTU) asserted.
Brought together by members of BTU, attendees accused Housing Court of “crimes against the people of Brooklyn” including overcrowding in the court, inadequate legal representation available for pro se tenants, improper resources non-English speakers and aging infrastructure.
An additional concern for BTU is the physical set-up of Housing Court. According the information discussed at the trial, Housing Court has 14 courtrooms for landlords to address their grievance against tenants but only provides one courtroom for tenant concerns. One tenant described the terrible condition of her apartment and talked about the months it took to actually bring her landlord to trial due to lack of available courtrooms.
“There are so many wrong things in Brooklyn Housing Court that it’s hard to find words,” said Beverly Rivers, a tenant leader with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. “People are like sardines in a can. The building is too crowded -- you’re already nervous about losing your home, you are scared and trying to keep calm, and you face a crowd of people, all pressed against each other.
“You dread to go there, you dread having to be crammed in with everyone else, scared like you. We need a real court, a decent place where tenants are treated with dignity, like human beings.”
After opening remarks by James, Borough President Eric Adams, Assemblymen Walter T. Mosley and Antonio Reynoso, and Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, a group of tenants took the stand to tell their horror stories of Housing Court.
One trial attendee told her story of how Housing Court's lack of accessibility for those with disabilities causes her to hesitate before bringing a claim against her landlord. Another recalled how a landlord’s lawyer tried to force him to sign a document that would effectively serve as an eviction notice and agreement.
“After they finally had a trial, the judge failed to appoint an administrator and simply gave the landlord more time to fix the problem,” said Manon Barnay, who testified at the mock trial. “It is clear to me that the Housing Court cares more about making the experience easier for landlords than tenants with serious problems with their apartments.”
Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna also testified about the lack of translators in the court. “As a young girl of 8 years old, I experienced being a translator for my parents in Housing Court. Until the age of 15, five of those years I spent in Housing Court trying to navigate a court system my parents knew nothing of. This is the story of many families in Brooklyn.”
Advocates hope that the mock trial will convince and influence a large array of city officials to consider repairing the broken Housing Court system.
“Equality does not live in landlord/tenant housing court right now,” Mosley said. “Inequality, unfortunately, has become a permanent resident. When we're talking about injustice in the court of law, we're talking about the epitome of hypocrisy. We're talking about the purity of our justice system not being acknowledged.
“The future of Brooklyn is in jeopardy and if we don't understand that then we might as well write our own death certificate.”