The Bronx Housing Court is the busiest housing court in the city’s five boroughs with 88,913 cases in 2017, more than any other borough. There were 13,436 evictions executed by marshals in the Bronx from Jan. 3, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018, also more than any other borough, according to data from the annual report of New York State Unified Court System and the New York City Department of Investigation. Every day, more than 2,000 people enter the 94,000-square-foot building at 1118 Grand Concourse and about 900 cases are heard in trials in 13 courtrooms as well as in lobbies outside elevator banks, said Miriam Breier, the supervising judge in the Bronx Housing Court.
The Right to Counsel law means that the court is busier than ever, with more attorneys and a growing number of complaints about overcrowding, long waiting times and a lack of privacy, according to several litigants and attorneys in the courthouse.
Almost every weekday morning, there is a long line outside Bronx housing court. The benches in the courthouse are packed and people who cannot find a seat either sit on the stairs or lean against the walls. Attorneys and their clients often conduct business in the hallways and the litigants sometimes wait in the hallways for the court clerk to call out their names.
When tenants without attorneys enter the courthouse, they consult the social workers from Housing Court Answers, a non-profit organization providing information for litigants under the escalator on the first floor. Then they are advised to meet a court attorney in the Help Center, where litigants get legal help including Right to Counsel. If tenants do qualify, they need to go to Office 1A to learn more about it.
Not all litigants understand the whole process. Larry Coates, 65, said he felt confused and knew nothing about Right to Counsel when he first came. “I haven’t heard of it,” said Coates. He could not pay for the rent and faced eviction after spending a lot of money medicating his sick wife.
Informed by a counsel in the court, Coates found himself qualify for Right to Counsel law. An attorney represented him for free during his second trip to the courthouse. But he was not satisfied with the environments in the courthouse. “We talked in the hallway,” said Coates. “I have been here for a while and I think it’s crowded.”
“I don’t think I will want to come here a lot of times… there are too many people over there,” said Henry Jones, 79, a self-represented tenant facing eviction. He was recently at the courthouse for the third time since August. He said he heard of the Right to Counsel law but did not qualify for it.
But at least one landlord said that the environment in the courthouse is improving. “It’s getting better,” said landlord Anita Gavin, 63. “It’s more convenient if I need help.” She also said it is easy for her to walk into the courthouse with a cane.
The tenants qualified for Right of Counsel have their cases heard in Part K and Part F in the court. Diane Lutwak, the judge of Part K, said the number of cases she hears daily did not increase after the Right to Counsel law. But she said more motions are filed in some cases and the number of adjourned cases is increasing because there were many cases and litigants every week.
“It’s going to get more and more crowded because we are only one year into a five-year implementation,” said Mark Levine, a City Council member who first introduced Right to Counsel legislation.
Space and Privacy
The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC, two big non-profit organizations, provide free legal help to low-income people who qualify under the Right to Counsel law. Bronx Legal Services opened a new office for more attorneys working on housing issues in September. However, the two organizations only have three small rooms in the courthouse.
The Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs, another organization helping people facing eviction, has just three desks in their office on the third floor. “It’s a really small office. … There is no confidentiality sometimes,” said Joseph Suliveras, 31, a paralegal. He added that five to 10 lawyers use the office on an average day.
The Bronx Defenders, another big non-profit legal aid organization in the Bronx, does not have an office in the courthouse. Other smaller legal aid programs, like Homebase, Family Eviction Prevention Supplement and Emergency Needs for the Homeless Program, share a room in the basement.
According to a report written by Special Commission on the Future of the New York City Housing Court, some tenants “will not connect with counsel until their first appearance in court.” The report states that the courthouse will “need space to hold an initial confidential intake interview or consultation.”
“It’s always extremely crowded. … But that’s not a new problem,” said Kathryn Neilson, the housing unit director at Bronx Legal Services. “What is changed with the Right to Counsel law is because tenants and tenant lawyers are connected in court. … There is really no place for them to have a conversation in confidential settings.”
Bronx Legal Services has 45 attorneys working in the courthouse but their small room only has two desks and two computers.
The Bronx Legal Aid Society faces similar problems. “You have to speak to them in the hallway, and then give them an appointment to come back to your office,” said Marshall Green, a senior attorney. He added that the Right to Counsel law made the courthouse more crowded. Bronx Legal Aid Society has 35 attorneys in the courthouse but only has three small desks in their office on the fifth floor. “There is no space for everybody,” said Green.
Attorneys for landlords share another little office next to the Legal Aid Society. There is only one desk, four chairs, one computer, three printers and two trash cans in their office. Briefcases are thrown on the floor and some suits hang on the metal hangers. Allison Heilbraun, 55, is an attorney for landlords. She said about 50 people come in and out the small office. “There is never enough space for coats or bags,” she said.
On the eighth and the tenth floor, judges conducts trials in the lobbies. Family members and visitors sit side by side on a small bench. Attorneys and litigants sit in red armchairs right in front of them but the doors of four elevators next to the armchairs often open and close letting people in and out.
According to the administrative rules of New York State Court, a non-jury courtroom should be at least 600 square feet and have “a judge’s bench with separate exit/entrance, a witness stand raised 6 ” or 12 ” above floor level, a court reporter station and a clerk’s station.” The courtroom in the lobby does not meet the standard. Breier said the problem would be solved when the city moved the housing court to a larger place.
Many attorneys have attended what they call lobby trials. “It’s a little strange to conduct a trial when the elevator open and close next to you,” said Neilson. She added that although most cases do not go to trial, most trials are conducted near the elevator banks on the eighth and tenth floor.
Breier said the trials on the eighth and tenth floor started six years ago. She added that she once held a video conference with a tenant in jail and the litigant laughed when he saw the judge sitting in the lobby.
The special commission report also states that “court users should not have to leave the courthouse to purchase coffee or simple refreshments” but there are no vending machines or other places providing snacks in the courthouse. During one recent lunchtime, an attorney sitting on the bench ate chips and drank soda. A woman on another floor took a sandwich out of her bag. Court rules prohibit eating in the hallway but guards didn’t stop either of them.
Tenants fighting eviction say the lack of privacy makes their time in court more difficult. “When I first came here, I felt confused and overwhelmed,” said Jonas Rodriguez, 25, who made several trips to the court house to fight his eviction since last year.
One recent day, Rodriguez came with his wife and child. After meeting his attorney on the second floor, the family waited on the fifth floor to meet a judge. “I talked with my lawyer in the corner of hallway,” he said. “There is no privacy.” His wife found another corner at the end of the hallway and looked after their child in the baby carriage.
“We need to ensure a space for private consultation,” said Levine. “There could literally be a landlord attorney lurking footsteps away and some of this had to take place in the halls.”
Many self-represented litigants go to the Help Center on the second floor for legal advice. They have to wait for a long time. Court attorneys are hired by the court to work in the Help Center and offer legal advice to litigants but do not represent them in the court. On Mondays, two court attorneys are available to meet litigants but only one attorney is available on other weekdays, according to Breier.
“If you come very early in the morning, you can be seen before 12,” said Viviana Silver, a self-represented landlord. “But if you come after 10, you have to wait after lunch.” Lunch at the Help Center is from 1 to 2:15 p.m. Silver said she came at 10 a.m. recently and waited until 2:30 p.m.
Silver said she often comes to the Help Center because hiring an attorney was too expensive. “People that are in line are not going to be seen today,” said Silver at around 2:20 p.m. “They have to come back tomorrow.” The woman sitting behind Silver came at around noon on a recent Wednesday but she waited for the whole afternoon and had to come back the next day because of the long line.
“We are going to hire 10 to 11 court attorneys,” said Breier. She said the officials at the housing court had been aware of the problem and hiring more attorneys might reduce the waiting time.
Moving the Court
According to the special commission report, the housing court is scheduled to move to the Bronx County Courthouse at 851 Grand Concourse, which is 0.7 miles away. The new site, the report said, is “a larger courthouse that is currently underutilized.” Two parts of housing court are already in that courthouse. The report does not say when the other court parts will be moved.
Breier said the relocation would give the litigants, attorneys and judges more public and private space. She added that all the legal service providers would share a larger room in the new place.
“There is going to be one room we can use one day a week, so that room will be shared by all the programs,” said attorney Green. “It looks like it may be worse.” Responding to what Green said, Breier said that Laura Douglas, the supervising judge of the Bronx Civil Court, would decide the allocation of rooms.
In the original plan, the move was set to take place this year. However, because because of logistics involved in moving inmates from Rikers Island, the relocation plan has been rescheduled to the beginning of 2019, said Breier.