In Bronx Housing Court, Tenants Fight to Stay in Their Homes

Rocio Quero Yescas is 56 and walks with a cane, and she fears she will trip and fall because the floor tiles in her apartment keep peeling up.

Kenya Whitt, a former psychiatric nurse, has been unable to pay rent since she was attacked by a patient and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Julio Rodriguez and his 81-year-old mother have struggled for months with noisy neighbors, and want to force the landlord to take action.

Each of them wound up in housing court in the Bronx in early June, looking for answers in a byzantine maze of paperwork, negotiations and hearings.

More than 171,500 eviction petitions were filed in New York’s housing court in 2019, the year before the pandemic shut the courts down. Now, the courthouses are beginning to reawaken, shaking off pandemic restrictions and resuming in-person appearances. The hallways are beginning to fill once again with tenants, landlords and their lawyers. More than a third of all new eviction cases are in the Bronx.

The resumption of eviction cases comes at a time when New Yorkers are squeezed by soaring inflation and record-high rents. On Tuesday, a regulatory panel approved a 3.25 percent increase on one-year leases for rent-stabilized homes, a move that will affect roughly two million city residents.

Every morning, a line forms in front of Bronx Housing Court, as anxious tenants wait under the scaffolding that now covers a section of the front of the building while work is being done to repair a leaky roof. Most mornings, the line stretches down the sidewalk, where a food truck sells egg sandwiches and hot coffee to those who skipped breakfast to arrive early.

Inside the courthouse, it is not like it used to be, observers say. Before the pandemic, the hallways and courtrooms were teeming with lawyers and tenants. On a recent day, an eerie quiet hid a tension simmering underneath the proceedings. Financial aid for tenants is dwindling as pandemic relief programs run out of money. And since the state’s eviction moratorium ended in January, filings in New York’s housing courts have crept higher.

The number of eviction cases is still far below prepandemic levels, and court officials say they are trying to keep the caseload from become overwhelming by clearing out the backlog.

“It’s so dramatically lower than it was prepandemic,” said Jean T. Schneider, the supervising judge for the New York City Housing Court. “There is just not an explosion of filings.”

But for tenants facing the threat of eviction, the first trip to the courthouse can be daunting. Some tenants are directed upstairs for their court appearances, while others are sent to the information desk on the first floor, where they can get paperwork, file grievances and even pay arrears.

On a recent Monday, Michelle Patterson-Gay waited to file a complaint against her landlord, who is trying to evict her. She lives in the Soundview neighborhood with her 17-year-old daughter, Essence, who has a learning disability, and says she had an agreement to move out in March 2020, but her landlord kept cashing her rent checks, which voided the deal.

Now, Ms. Gay said, her landlord has been harassing her and blocking access to her apartment, for which she pays about $1,200 a month. Until she finds a lawyer, she is prepared to fight on her own. “I have a special-needs child, and I can’t live like that,” she said.

The dam will burst, said Raven S. Dorantes, a managing attorney of the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project. It’s only a matter of time.

“You are going to see a lot more folks at their breaking point,” she said.

Upstairs at Bronx Housing Court, a large courtroom on the second floor has been converted into an intake room where tenants can request legal representation, look up cases and file paperwork themselves. Two stations are set up for tenants who could only get a virtual appearance, but do not have computer or Wi-Fi access and must therefore appear in person.

Miriam Maldonado, who was seeking to get repairs done in her apartment, sat in front of a large monitor for 20 minutes, hoping to connect with a lawyer, only to be told she was there on the wrong day. Another tenant, Nector Caro, showed up for a virtual meeting with a representative from Mobilization for Justice, a legal services provider in the Bronx, who said the agency could not take any more cases, but would contact him by phone and offer free legal advice.

Down the hall, a long table served as a makeshift help desk, with a desktop computer at one end and a bilingual court clerk at the other.

Julio Rodriguez was waiting there with his mother, Ligia. After years of substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness and bad credit, Mr. Rodriguez found a landlord willing to give him a chance on an apartment in Morris Park for $1,950 a month. Shortly after moving in, though, the upstairs neighbors started making “ridiculous amount of noises,” he said.

“We didn’t really want to start complaining about anything because we were just lucky to be there,” Mr. Rodriguez said. But, he added, “my quality of life was deteriorating at a rapid pace.”

Because of a prior eviction, he said he was reluctant to move. So he came to housing court to force his landlord to act. “He is just waiting for me to get fed up and move,” he said, “and I’m not in a position to do that because of the headache I went through to get this place.”

The help desk is available to landlords, too. Marco Villegas, who owns nine buildings in the Bronx, mostly in the Morrisania neighborhood, sat on a bench with his daughter, hoping to resolve an issue with a tenant over nonpayment of rent.

“This is my first time back in the courthouse post-Covid,” he said. “I don’t how if the calm is reflective of real life or just a shift in how the process is done.”

Mr. Villegas said he viewed his tenants as his greatest asset; without them, he could not pay his bills. He prefers a community-based approach, where landlords build relationships with their tenants. For him, an eviction filing is a last resort.

And a legal fight can be costly. He said upfront fees were $2,500 to file the paperwork and get two court hearings. To turn over an apartment, including making repairs and finding a new tenant, the cost can be as high as $30,000, he said.

Mr. Villegas, who rents out 30 units in total, is frustrated because he feels housing court is geared to bigger landlords who have money and connections. “My access to resources is way different,” he said.

Even landlords with more units find evictions to be a hassle. Court battles are time-consuming and expensive for them, too, said Lisa Gomez, the chief executive of L & M Development Partners, which manages about 20,000 affordable housing units in New York. “There is no upside to going to court,” she said.

Some of New York’s biggest affordable-housing landlords say they would rather avoid a court fight altogether. The pandemic has given them time to rethink their relationships with their tenants, said Adam Weinstein, the chief executive of Phipps Houses.

To help alleviate a looming logjam in the courts, Phipps has withdrawn half of its pending cases. “It’s not just a responsibility, it’s in the landlords’ interest,” he said. “An eviction is just a vacancy, and a vacancy is a loss.”

The New York City Housing Authority, landlord to 11 percent of the city’s population, is rethinking its approach as well, said Lisa Bova-Hiatt, general counsel at N.Y.C.H.A. The city agency has discontinued 90 percent of its eviction cases and will instead focus on case management, working with tenants before a problem spirals into a crisis.

“We decided there has to be a better way to this,” she said. “We have to do better to keep people housed.”

Housing advocates embrace this approach. “Ideally, yes, we would all work together before anyone is entangled in the legal system,” said Runa Rajagopal, managing director of the civil action practice at the Bronx Defenders, a public defender.

Despite the efforts to prevent a deluge in eviction filings, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are facing eviction: 121,473 new cases have been filed in New York’s housing courts since March 15, 2020, according to Princeton’s Eviction Lab. More than a third of those filings — 41,988 — are in the Bronx alone.

Often, an eviction fight arises because of problems beyond a tenant’s control, like a simple paperwork mistake or the loss of a job.

On the fifth floor of the Bronx Housing Court, Ms. Dorantes of the Urban Justice Center was representing Kenya Whitt, a tenant who has not worked since she was knocked unconscious by a patient at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she was a nurse.

With no job, Ms. Whitt, 46, has been unable to pay rent on her apartment in University Heights. Her landlord, however, claims she is receiving income and is seeking arrears.

“This is my first time being in court, and I’m not aware of how things work” she said, looking off at Ms. Dorantes, who was headed into the courtroom to appear before the judge.

Ms. Dorantes reappeared a few minutes later; the case has been adjourned to July 20.

“We can’t help people fast enough,” she said. “Tenants fall through the cracks.”

That day, drilling on the roof above Judge Diane E. Lutwak’s courtroom drove people out into the corridor, where they lingered and waited for guidance.

Among them was Rocio Quero Yescas, who sat with her 26-year-old daughter, Stephane Martinez-Quero, while their lawyer met with Judge Lutwak. They were trying to resolve dispute with their landlord over the floor in their apartment in Jerome Park, for which they pay $1,173 a month.

Her mother noticed the smell first, Ms. Martinez-Quero said. “She thought it was mold, but it was the wood that was decaying.” A leaking radiator had damaged the wooden floor, and now the tiles covering it were peeling up.

But a few attempts by the landlord to fix the problem were unsuccessful, so Ms. Quero Yescas filed a complaint with the city. In response, her daughter said, the landlord is trying to evict them.

A social worker at Part of the Solution, a provider of emergency services in the Bronx, referred them to Elizabeth Maris, a supervising attorney at the agency.

“Landlords often try to fix things inexpensively,” Ms. Maris said. Through an interpreter, she explained to Ms. Quero Yescas and her daughter how the meeting with the judge went. “We asked for an adjournment to give the landlord time to make repairs. Hopefully, they will withdraw their case.”

Tomorrow will bring a new wave of tenants seeking help, and advocates say they will do whatever they can, despite the increased load.

“The right to counsel was this great thing that the city decide to do; it could be a great model for others across the country,” said Donna Dougherty, senior director of legal services for elder justice at the JASA, a service for older New Yorkers. “If we fail at it because of the pandemic, it will be tragic.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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