By Abigail Ronck
Depending on which judge hears your case in Kings County Housing Court you might not be able to go home. There are no juries here. There are just hundreds of people coming in through the doors each day to see the man or woman who sits on high. The judge will either send them back to the apartment where a cat or dog waits, or to a landlord who will evict them.
In 2009, there were a total of 78,179 petitions filed in Kings County Housing Court alone, of which 69,206 were for nonpayment of rent. A 1986 study, published by the organization Housing Court Answers, found that the average case involving a tenant representing himself without an attorney was “dealt with” in just five minutes. According to the study, 88 percent of tenants in housing court could not afford lawyers. Meanwhile, 97 percent of landlords could.
The numbers have changed very little over the past 24 years. A 2005 New York County Lawyers’ Association report states, “The overwhelming majority of tenants who appear or default in proceedings before the Housing Court cannot afford to pay for counsel to represent them.” As a result, they’re being evicted. In 2009, Kings County saw 7,641 residential evictions, according to information compiled by the NYC Department of Investigation, Bureau of City Marshals.
Fifteen judges sit on housing court, which is located in Brooklyn’s Civil Court building on the corner of Livingston and Smith streets. “We do more cases than anywhere else on the planet,” says a court officer who says he is not allowed to give his name. He carries a gun. He says that he and other court officers make a couple of arrests a week. “We are here as a presence,” he says. “We answer questions and keep the peace.”
Judge Marc Finkelstein presides in room 407. He wears a purple shirt and tie. A blazer covers his broad shoulders. His beard is gray and full. Finkelstein peers over square spectacles that are arched downward on his nose. His voice is brusque and his wit is evident. “Most people in this world, especially this audience, would want a rent stabilized apartment that costs $328,” he says to a woman complaining of her rent.
The crowd nods and responds, “Mmm hmmmm.”
He is not sympathetic to her claim. Case dismissed. She can pay and stay, or move out.
Next Finkelstein calls up five people at once. None of them have lawyers. He sits them in a row and clears each of their cases within ten minutes. He next sees a woman whose court documents state that she lives at Park Palace.
“You live in a palace?” Finkelstein says. “Why are you here?” he asks.
The woman laughs at his joke. She then explains that there has been a mistake. She lives at Park Place. “Well we need to get this paperwork fixed so you can get out of here,” says the judge. The woman is relieved.
One floor up, the situation is not so humorous. Judge Laurie Lau presides over the case of Cantone v. Coiro. This has been dragging on for two and a half months. There have been many recesses and interruptions—one attorney was on vacation and schedules did not coordinate. But for Anthony Coiro and his family this is dire. Coiro has been living in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn Heights since 1957. He moved in as a child when his parents rented the place. Now after more than 50 years his landlord wants him out. In the course of the trial, neighbors have testified about an abundance of garbage outside his unit, loud pets, screaming children, fights with his wife in the hallway and multiple calls to the police. If a home defines a lifestyle, then Coiro, in the view of his complaining neighbors, is not welcome in theirs.
Today he is on the stand. He argues that his landlord is overly sensitive. He says that he has always paid the rent on time. His family has occupied the apartment for most of his life. He cannot imagine leaving his home.
The lawyers argue back and forth about Coiro’s rights and about his tenancy. Judge Lau is annoyed. “Perhaps both counsels need to take a chill pill,” she says. Her voice lacks affect and is barely audible. “They are being far sharper than I am. You two are getting a little down and dirty.” She calls for a recess.
Meanwhile, three doors down the hall in room 502, some 50 people are waiting to appear before Judge Cheryl J. Gonzalez. There is a sign that reads NO TALKING in all capital letters and an octagonal post that indicates a stopping point when approaching the bench without permission.
Gonzalez is quiet and stern—stately almost. She wears stud earrings and a tan tweed blazer. She has drooping cheeks and a thoughtful face that breaks into a smile only once or twice. It’s so sudden that you’ll miss it before it’s gone. In her courtroom, most tenants represent themselves. She offers her ruling and opinions in a voice so quiet they can barely be heard, even in a silent room.
Outside her courtroom door nearly 75 people are talking. Some are shouting. One woman sits holding her lowered head with one hand as a little girl asks if she can talk again. They have just come out of Gonzalez’s courtroom. The woman doesn’t answer.
A man wearing two coats towers over a court official surveying his case. He owes his landlord over $7,000. He doesn’t have it. This is his second appearance in court.
He needs more time. Whether or not Gonzalez will grant it remains to be seen. He opens the door and heads in to see.