Two things happened in the Bronx recently that could affect housing throughout the city.
The first was the launching of a new program to prevent homelessness, focusing on providing tenants an attorney at Housing Court. The second was the end of a contentious lawsuit filed by landlords against tenant organizers.
A new effort to prevent homelessness by offering both social and legal services at Housing Court has been launched as a pilot project in the Bronx, the first of its kind in the nation.
“We’re hoping to solve a problem,” said Judge Fern Fisher, the administrative judge of the Civil Court of the City of New York. The problem is the record numbers of homeless people in city shelters. “At some point, some of those people were evicted at Housing Court.”
The new “Housing Help Program” targets the Bronx’s 10451 zip code, which covers much of Mott Haven. About 5,000 people were evicted from their homes in Mott Haven in 2004 of about 23,000 total evictions citywide.
As many as 20 percent of people in city shelters have experienced an eviction. While an eviction may not have been the immediate cause of their homelessness, the fact that so many have had cases in Housing Court makes it a natural place to focus homelessness prevention efforts, Fisher said.
As I wrote in October, the new program is being spearheaded by the United Way of New York City, which is providing about $1 million to finance it, in collaboration with other non-profits and several city agencies.
The program was one recommendation that came from a panel of housing and homelessness experts brought together by the United Way last year. The panel concluded that homelessness had three central interrelated causes 1) a shortage of affordable transitional and supportive housing, 2) economic hardship by NYC’s low-income working families, and 3) unmet needs of highly vulnerable populations.
In the Mott Haven area, people tend not to get help when they face housing problems, in part because social and legal services are limited. The neighborhood was chosen, too, because it sends proportionally more people to homeless shelters than many other neighborhoods. The program expects to assist about 650 families over a year, its collaborators said.
Now, when people from that zip code end up in Housing Court they will have the opportunity to participate in the program as long as their income is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level (about $34,870 for a family of four).
The residents of 10451 will go through a separate intake process at the court, avoiding the often-long lines that plague Bronx Housing Court. If they decide to participate, their legal and social situations will be assessed. The services will continue outside of court, back in their neighborhood, where the organization Women in Need will follow up offering assistance to address specific problems, like providing job training and referring people for mental health services.
A single judge, Jaya Madhavan, will hear the cases involving residents of 10451 in a special courtroom that has been set up next to the court’s resource center. Madhavan was selected for the one-year assignment because he is a relatively new judge with a small caseload.
Offering more complete services to people at Housing Court will prevent evictions because evictions rarely have just one cause, said representatives from the agencies working on the Housing Help Program.
“There are a lot of things going on for a family that can bring on a housing crisis,” said Jo Gonsalves, director of affordable housing and homelessness programs for the United Way of New York City. Obvious problems that lead to Housing Court cases, like unemployment, often are joined by other issues: domestic violence, mental health problems, substance abuse and others.
“We’ve put together a program for families, who are stressed and frustrated and overwhelmed with the prospect of losing their homes,” she said of people who find themselves summoned to Housing Court by their landlords. “We don’t just offer legal services, we offer social services, which are right on site.”
Gonsalves said three principles guide the program:
Accessibility -- providing services right at the court and in the community; Responsiveness -- addressing the “full range of family needs, rather than a single problem at a time”; and, “Continuity of care,” -- helping families until their situations are stabilized.
“We’re very enthusiastic about this program,” said Steven Telzak, the interim project director for Legal Services for New York-Bronx. He said the court-based approach would allow legal service and social service providers to tackle the problems that have led to a Housing Court case. “We’ll leverage that (housing) crisis to help them in other ways,” he said.
Fisher said the collaborative effort that led to the new program reflected a wider view of homelessness than the court sees.
“We should be a full partner in solving societal problems,” she said.
By providing legal representation to people at Housing Court, even if for only one zip code, the program fulfills one long-time wish of many advocates. People who represent themselves in Housing Court, as almost 90 percent of tenants do compared to about 10 percent of landlords, often learn too late what “adversarial” really means when the word is used to describe the American legal system.
While many tenants can and do defend themselves in Housing Court cases, they are pitted against experienced attorneys representing landlords. Many tenants do not learn quickly enough how to defend themselves and an aggressive landlord’s attorney can use the traumatic thought of losing one’s home to good effect against a tenant.
Fisher said the program would reinforce the view that legal representation makes a difference and, if successful, give advocates ammunition to push for replicating it elsewhere and to lobby for a right to counsel at Housing Court.
“We want to show people that this is what works,” Fisher said. “That this is what it takes to prevent homelessness. When we have successes in programs like this” the value of legal representation will be clear.
Advocates in the Bronx reacted positively to the news of the program, but viewed it cautiously.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Andrew Laiosa of the Neighborhood Initiatives Development Corporation, a community-based organization in the Bronx. But he questioned the efficacy of using $1 million to service one area.
“It’s taking a lot of resources to service 650 families, or so,” he said. “It’s a strange strategy given the circumstances,” he added. The circumstances are significant cuts to rent subsidies, the lack of affordable housing and the continued rise in rents across the city, including the Bronx.
LANDLORDS LOSE A CASE â€“ OR DO THEY?
The settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by landlords against tenant organizers who had worked in a building on Woodycrest Avenue in Highbridge also drew mixed reviews from advocates, organizations that support them and the landlords.
Landlords filed the lawsuit in 2003 after tenant organizers had begun working with tenants to compel their landlord to fix the building’s many problems. The landlords alleged that organizers had prevented them from refinancing a mortgage with Washington Mutual bank, had defamed the landlords and had trespassed in the building. The organizers had published and distributed a variety of flyers and met with the building’s tenants several times.
The case brought apparently unwelcome attention to Frank Palazzolo, a landlord who owns dozens of buildings in the Bronx although his financial connections to the buildings are often hidden. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development launched an investigation of Palazzolo’s control of buildings in the Bronx as a result. The investigation is pending.
The landlords were seeking $1.5 million in damages, but ultimately abandoned all of their claims. The settlement indicates that landlords are withdrawing their suit “with prejudice,” meaning they will not seek to re-file it later. They will post flyers in the building indicating that organizers can come back in the building.
“I think it says that tenants in a neighborhood like Highbridge have powerful and strong advocates on their side in their struggle to make their housing better,” said Edward Phelan, executive director of the Highbridge Community Life Center, one of the community organizations named in the suit.
But Jackie del Valle, the lead organizer, said the settlement might simply encourage other landlords to file similar suits in the future.
The landlords “were clearly not able to get a victory out of this,” del Valle said. “They spent a lot of time and money on this court case, which they could have used for the building. However, they did hold up organizing work and compromised Highbridge’s mission.
“Organizers prevailed, but I don’t think that they prevailed as strongly as they could have.”
A woman who answered the telephone number indicated on the flyers that announce the settlement to tenants but who refused to identify herself said the settlement was a fair resolution but did not signal a defeat for the landlords.
“We were working with the tenants,” the woman said. “The building was already in the process of being repaired. We felt we had no choice but to” file the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed as a way to impede organizers’ efforts, the woman said, because those efforts were preventing the landlords from making repairs. She did not indicate what exactly organizers were doing to prevent the repairs.
“We felt we needed the opportunity to finish the repairs in the building,” she said. “They were interfering too much. So we felt we needed them to back off so we could complete the repairs.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â