Welcome to Housing Court, Son

A half dozen years ago when I started my career in as largely unsupervised tenants’ rights lawyer at a non-profit, I figured a visit to housing court was in order.

I had heard that housing court sucks. The bathrooms smell, the staff mostly hate their jobs, and the judges can be downright racist, sexist, homophobic bullies.

But, I quickly learned that the bathrooms and the judges aren’t the reason why housing court so deeply and profoundly sucks. If you live in a cute little walk up in the East Village, where you pay a monthly rent you’re too ashamed to repeat, the casualties of housing court probably haunt your closet-sized bedroom at night. Housing court is a battlefield where the blood of gentrification is shed and the bodies are haphazardly buried. And a lot of those bodies belong to little old ladies, immigrants, and low-income folks of color.

Landlords aren’t there to collect a few grand in rental arrears. No. Landlords know that if they can dispose of pesky rent-stabilized tenants, they can raise the rent by 1,000% and bring in  young professionals to rent for a year at a time . In fact, their business model requires it. Landlords take out tremendous loans from unscrupulous banks or unregulated hedge funds that require a turnover rate of 30-40% (or sometimes even 100%) in a building where tenants typically stay for 50+ years. Many of the tenants who live in these stabilized buildings proudly proclaim that the only way they’re leaving is in a body bag (or, a Marshal’s eviction team…). I call them “body bag tenants” (another topic for a another post).

So when landlords shut off basic services like gas or heat and “forget” to restore them for months or years, tenants file cases in housing court to remind their landlord that they’re here to stay. And landlords, desperate to remove tenants from their buildings, bring eviction cases on all kinds of frivolous and non-frivolous grounds, hoping that the tenant will give up and get out.

So tenants stand in line in the cold, waiting to pass through metal detectors for the privilege of waiting a whole lot more. At some point, a tenant will hear a landlord attorney badly mispronounce their name, and invite them into the hallway to “make a deal” (it is a near mathematical certainty that the landlord attorney will be a middle aged white man looking very unhappy).

If the tenant refuses to sign the standard agreement (waiving all rights and defenses and, upon failure to pay the rental debt in full, sacrificing the tenant’s first born child to the landlord), the tenant will be made to wait more. Potentially all day.

Finally, the tenant will meet with a very grumpy  judge who will demand to know why the rent has not been paid. If the tenant raises a “defense” such as “my apartment has a leak in the ceiling,” the judge might chime in with a culturally tone deaf story about how his vacation home in Maine had a leak, once…

I’ll get back to the blood of gentrification and the buried bodies in a later post. But for now, I’ll recount my first, somewhat traumatic, visit to housing court.

Nervous about appearing “non-lawyerly,” I wore my nicest black suit and a pink button down shirt. I tend to look young so I consulted with my roommate who advised I put on a necklace to complement the button down and help clarify my gender in light of my “Justin Bieber” length hair (at the time, Bieber was rocking a “shaggy” mid-length hairstyle). Looking in the mirror prior to my first foray into housing court, I thought I appeared professional, and way more feminine than usual.

That morning, after checking out the “resolution parts” (where tenants make their first few appearances) and the hallways where tenants painfully negotiated with landlord attorneys, I selected a quiet trial “part” to try to observe a direct or cross-examination. Knowing that few, if any, people ever came to housing court by choice, I asked the court officer, a butchy cop who patrolled the court room, if I could observe the ongoing trial. She gave me the “go ahead.”

The judge, a 40-something year old woman wearing lots of makeup to complement her black robe, looked bored and sipped a Coke Zero as the landlord attorney engaged a clumsy cross-examination of a teenage girl. Although I hadn’t seen the beginning, I pieced together that the  girl was testifying on behalf of her uncle. Her uncle had lived with an elderly relative for many decades, and that relative had recently died. Because her uncle was not an immediate family member of the deceased, he could only take over the rent-regulated apartment if he could prove a “mother-son” like relationship. If the niece’s testimony and the other evidence didn’t convince the judge of the closeness of the uncle’s relationship to his deceased relative, the uncle would lose his apartment.

At some point at the end of the testimony, the judge noticed me in the back. She turned to the lawyers for both sides and said, “I see we have a little person in the court room, to whom does he belong?” The lawyers looked at each other, then right back at me, and both shrugged. The judge moved on. I turned bright red but, despite my typical prolific verbal tendencies, I sat there, totally frozen. The court officer, clearly a dyke herself, snuck over to my side of the court room and whispered, “It’s funny. The judge doesn’t just think you’re a child witness in this case. She thinks you’re a boy child.” Again, frozen. My mouth dry, I whisper, “I know.”

Feeling my face turn even redder, I took a bathroom break. Returning for the next witness, the judge noticed me again. “Who is that?” the judge demanded of the lawyers for both sides. Again, shrugs from the “adults” in the room. Finally, I stood, my voice shaking. “Your Honor, are you talking about me?” “Yes,” The judge said, looking somewhere between curious and annoyed.

“Your Honor, I’m a newly admitted attorney. I’m here to observe today.”

Now it was the judge’s turn to look red. The butch court officer chuckled. The judge turned to me, “I apologize to the mistake…errr… as to your age. Welcome to Housing Court.” Welcome, indeed.

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