By Yaling Jiang and Chandler Kidd
On a recent Monday morning, a man and woman stood near the corner of Livingston and Smith streets in Brooklyn. They mumbled words into their phone. The conversation was indistinct, but their tone was stern. After the call ended, the couple entered the glass door of 141 Livingston St., a place where many don’t want to be seen.
This is how the day starts at Kings County Housing Court, which handles about 60,000 eviction cases a year. After the couple opened the glass door, they waited.
Housing court is all about waiting.
At 8:30 a.m., 24 people stood in a quiet and orderly line on the second floor, waiting for court employees to show up to their places in a series of glassed-in window stations at one end of the room so that tenants could get their numbered tickets from the first window, sit on wooden benches to fill in paperwork and proceed to one of the other nine windows.
“Yellow ticket Window 2,” called one of the clerks. Another yelled out, “White ticket Number 60 to Window 5.” Yellow tickets were for tenants who were in court for the first time and white tickets were for those who want an order to show cause, which will stop eviction if it gets signed by a judge.
Raheem Richardson was the 25th person in line. He wore all black except for a cartoon bear with blue, magenta and yellow eyes – a design by rapper Kanye West – on his hoodie. He had taken half a day off from a job as a teaching assistant to sixth graders with special needs in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
After waiting in line for a ticket, his next stop was Room 612.
The Right to Counsel law, which grants free legal representation to all income-eligible tenants facing eviction in housing courts in the five boroughs, currently covers tenants who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. In Brooklyn, they must live in zip codes 11216, 11221 or 11225. Right to Counsel is scheduled to cover all New Yorkers who meet the income requirements by 2022.
Brooklyn housing court is supposed to start at 9 a.m. with the final hearing ending at 5 p.m., according to a piece of paper in a glass case outside of Room 612. Tenants and lawyers go to the case to look at the schedule. It’s a little like the posting of a cast list for a high school play except that tenants aren’t playing a role; they are facing eviction.
At 9:30 a.m., Judge Marc Finkelstein prepared for the day in his chamber to the left of the judge’s bench. As he sat down at his desk, he explained that he cannot begin to hear cases until representatives of Human Resources Administration screen tenants to see if they are eligible for an attorney through the Right to Counsel law.
“The HRA person will call out the names and zip codes,” Finkelstein said, “If they are eligible … they will then speak to a lawyer.”
Wearing a tweed suit, purple tie and glasses, Finkelstein waited to hear his first case. Above him hung a 5-by-12-inch wood panel with the words ‘In God We Trust’ painted in gold. To the left of Finkelstein, on a bookshelf, was a model of the scales of justice, which some tenants may feel is not appropriate after hearing that eviction will be their fate by the end of the day.
Finkelstein looked concerned as he studied the tenants and landlords who had flooded the benches of Room 612. Among them: Raheem Richardson.
Richardson perched on the last row of six benches on the left side and got on his phone to kill time. He had to represent himself because he made $1,000 too much to qualify for help.
At the front of the courtroom, a lawyer looked like he had everything under control. He met his client, a landlord, by the court officer’s desk. They were both smartly dressed in suits and ties, sitting side by side in the second row.
Around 10:15 a.m., the lawyer tried to reassure his client, who was growing impatient because the tenant in the case was late.
The tenant finally arrived around 10:30 a.m. walking on crutches with a walker boot on her left foot. “Angela, you’re here!” the lawyer said. He welcomed her with a warm smile and invited her to sit in the first row, away from the landlord.
Angela was being evicted, and she asked the lawyer if she could have a letter of recommendation for her next landlord. The landlord told his lawyer to tell her: “Yes, we’ll send the best recommendation ever.”
The lawyer started filing documents by the judge’s bench to give a copy to the tenant and the landlord. At that moment, an officer from Human Resources Administration carrying a clipboard walked in and called out: “Angela Thompson?”
The tenant tried to get up using her crutches. The lawyer noticed. “But I’m her lawyer!” he shouted across the room.
Without the Right to Counsel law, the lawyer would have been correct. Unlike other parts of housing court where there is only one landlord lawyer in each case, the majority of cases in Finkelstein’s part have two. “Some [landlord] attorneys aren’t regulars, they don’t know how the system runs,” Finkelstein said. “They speak to the tenants before they get screened, although they weren’t supposed to.”
Outside of Room 612, the hallways were crowded with attorneys and tenants. Among them was an older woman in a motorized scooter. She was wearing pink Crocs and toting an oxygen tank in her basket. She sighed as she waited for her case to be heard. Around the corner, an attorney scribbled a settlement on top of a trash can.
Wilesca Belhomme, the Brooklyn Right to Counsel coordinator at Housing Court Answers, an advocacy group, said the hallway is always crowded.
“This is the hallway where the tenants get screwed over,” said Belhomme. “I want to have volunteers and interns with Housing Court Answers stand in this hallway to make sure this harassment no longer happens.”
Carollyn Ramirez stood next to Puneet Sharma, an attorney at RiseBoro, one of the legal service providers under the Right to Counsel law. “I was scared,” she said of her last time in court without a lawyer. Now that she has legal representation, she said she is not worried about being harrassed.
Sitting behind a low blue concrete barrier by the judge’s bench, lawyers from various legal service providers are on a rotation schedule to take cases if screening shows that the tenants’ background fit the requirements. Sharma took Ramirez’s case on Aug. 27 when he was on duty but that didn’t mean the case would proceed.
“Everyone on the stand for the first time, 99 percent get adjourned due to the people and attorneys meeting for the first time,” Finkelstein said. The newly assigned lawyers then can use the time – five weeks for Sharma – before the next court date to study and do research on the case.
Despite being his position of power in tenants’ eyes, Finkelstein says certain problems are out of his control. One issue is that the tenants are only being screened on their first day in court. He said it would save a lot of time if that screening occurred earlier but he said it was up to the administrators of the Right to Counsel law to improve it.
“It’s 10:36, and not one case has been heard. Now I have to do all the cases in a compact way,” said Finkelstein. He usually has to wait for an hour, but today seemed worse than usual. All he wants is to start at 9:30 a.m. “Then we can take many more cases,” he said.