By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As Maria Delores Cortes prepares to do battle with her landlord in Brooklyn’s Housing Court once again, she takes a moment to prepare for the journey. A home care nurse, she knows she'll need to leave her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment a full two hours ahead of her scheduled court appearance. The subway is the least of her problems. She needs to factor in the inevitable wait in line before she passes through security, and then the even longer line for the elevator up to the courthouse.
And Cortes isn't alone in her lease-renewal battle. That's because Brooklyn's Housing Court -- one of the busiest in the country and the second busiest in the city behind the Bronx -- is about to become homeless itself.
78,000 of the borough's neediest cases are heard here every year, but -- almost absurdly -- this vital last defense for people on the verge of homelessness is now on the verge of losing its own lease.
Located at 141 Livingston St., this privately owned building is leased to New York City for $3.3 million a year. It's home to three full-time courts: Brooklyn’s Housing Court, its Civil Court and the Appellate Term for the Second Judicial Department. Yet, in less than a week -- on May 31 to be precise -- the city’s lease will expire.
A Dignified Place
Court buildings should give people “the sense that they are in an important place, a dignified place.” Those are the words of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s as he promoted a city financed court renovation project. That 1999 initiative included a 72-courtroom, combined Supreme Criminal and Family Court facility at 330 Jay St., as well as renovations to 120 Schermerhorn -- now home to Brooklyn Criminal Court.
Unfortunately, 141 Livingston St. wasn't part of the plan. The result, according to a tenant coalition sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, is that when Brooklyn tenants and landlords enter Housing Court, they “deal with overcrowding both inside and outside the courtrooms, aging infrastructure, and substandard facilities.”
To highlight the issue, a “mock trial” of the Housing Court facilities was held in March of this year. Brooklyn pols and tenant associations used the event to highlight perceived inadequacies of justice.
“Equality does not live in landlord/tenant housing court right now,” Assemblymen Walter T. Mosley said.
“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...you are scared and trying to keep calm and you face a crowd of people, all pressed against each other.”
In fact, on any weekday morning, there is a line around the block for people waiting to enter the building on court business.
“This building was not set-up for this kind of usage,” a court officer told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
As to why people were being corralled into limited elevators by line dividers?
“This isn’t Supreme Court (at 360 Adams St.),” a court officer said, “if we did not have structure like this, people would be getting into fights just trying to get into the elevator.”
And, compared to their counterparts housed at 360 Adams St. and around the corner at 330 and 320 Jay St., the judges of 141 Livingston St. are a lot less insulated. “There are no separate elevators for judges of the court,” Paul Kenny, Brooklyn Appellate Term chief clerk, told the Eagle in an exclusive interview. Because the lack of secure elevators can result in a judge having unplanned face time with an irate litigant, stopgap measures have been taken. “We allow judges in an elevator with a court officer,” security noted. But it is not a fool-proof answer to a legitimate security concern. By contrast, judges at 360 Adams St. ride in a designated elevator that is inaccessible to the public.
And while no judge was willing to go on the record, attorneys expressed disgust with the facilities at 141 Livingston. “The elevators are always broken down so you are worried about getting to cases on-time,” Ed Hall, a Brooklyn attorney with Balsamo & Rosenblatt LLP, told the Eagle. Added the same law firm's Robert Rosenblatt: “There is congestion, lack of air conditioning and inadequately sized courtrooms.”
Limited Justice Procured by Limited Space
With only limited space in the former office building for courtrooms, there is barely any space for suitable chambers for the dozens of judges, staff, and court files. As for litigants and their counsel, the situation is even worse.
“There is little room for attorney-client privacy,” said Hall. “You are speaking to clients in the hallway where there are dozens of other people.”
“The system may be designed to settle cases, [but] this place is more conducive for screaming matches” said Luis Henriquez, an attorney with community group Make the Road New York.
Still, it's a view that not everyone holds.
“These conditions do not affect justice at all,” Rosenblatt said. “It’s only an inconvenience.”
Litigants and their counsel are not the only court occupants suffering with failing amenities. The Appellate Term, located on the top two floors of 141 Livingston St., is running out of storage space. Even the simple task of receiving mail on a timely basis is proving a challenge. For unknown reasons, the United States Postal Service refuses to deliver mail directly to the court.
“The postman does not deliver here,” Kenny said. “We have to depend on the generosity of the Civil Term to receive our letters and packages.”
And this is more than a minor inconvenience. In a system managed by deadlines, undelivered mail can cause unintended case delays or -- in a worst case scenario -- even case dismissals.
How did it get here?
A 15-story building erected in 1959, 141 Livingston was originally constructed as an office building for Continental Insurance Companies. Never intended as a courthouse, it has experienced a rocky transition from the business of insurance to the needs of litigants, lawyers and judges.
Owned for the past 10 years by David Bistricer of Clipper Realty, tenant advocates have recently suggested that the courts deploy some less than traditional tactics to break the logjam.
"It would have been better if the city refused to sign a new lease and just squatted,” Aga Trojniak of Flatbush Tenant Coalition said. “This would put pressure on the landlord to actually make changes to the building.”
And for Bistricer, whose record at another of his properties -- the Flatbush Gardens buildings -- saw him labeled as one of the city’s worst landlords by then-Public Advocate, and current New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, the attention is almost certainly unwelcome.
When Moving is not an Option
Still, despite the dilapidated conditions, the city is preparing to renew the $3.3million a year lease. “The lease has to be renewed,” said David Bookstaver, spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration. “It has to be because while we are in the process of looking for a new building, court function must go on.”
“Housing court isn’t going anywhere,” Hon. Lisa Ottley said at a recent Brooklyn Bar Association Judiciary Night. However, some temporary moves aren't out of the question and that has some folks worried.
“I just built an office a block away from the courthouse,” Rosenblatt said of his offices at 80 Livingston St. “Why did I just spend my life savings building this office if the court is going to move 40 blocks away?”
The city has made clear that it does intend to seek infrastructural renovations as it continues lease negotiations with Bistricer and Clipper Realty.
“We are negotiating for upgrades to the building,” said a spokesperson from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). “We are sure that provisions will be included to renovate [141 Livingston St.] to make it suitable for its designated use.”
In the mean time, the Eagle has been assured that new space is being scouted in the interim. “We are looking for alternative locations, while negotiating details of a lease renewal that will ensure needed upgrades to the Kings County Civil Court space at 141 Livingston Street in Brooklyn,” said DCAS.
Meanwhile, the city’s interim lease with Clipper Realty is undetermined. And while the city continues to pursue its options, cases such as Cortes’ toil on. In a resigned tone Henriquez advised, “these are the particular realities of Brooklyn’s Housing Court and the facilities at 141 Livingston.”