A lawyer makes a difference for a day in Brooklyn housing court

A city program is trying to provide lawyers to tenants for free.

The line can start snaking around the block before 9 a.m.

Maybe the people waiting think they’ll get in and out early at Brooklyn’s housing court, the dreary hall of justice near Jay Street-MetroTech where landlords and tenants go to sue, be sued, evict or get evicted. But those being sued or evicted will likely be there a long time, says Pavita Krishnaswamy, a 16-year veteran of Legal Services NYC and director of litigation and the organization’s housing practice in Brooklyn.

Particularly if the tenants don’t have a lawyer. Landlords are represented over 90 percent of the time, and often don’t show up in person. Slightly more than 25 percent of tenants lawyer up, meaning many come in person to argue their own cases. That has personal consequences — Krishnaswamy says the court largely serves the working poor. So, you’re in court for a missed rent payment, and then you miss a day’s paycheck.

There are also legal consequences: unrepresented tenants are more than four times more likely to have a warrant of eviction issued, according to city figures.

This is why Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have agreed to fund and unveil a Right to Counsel initiative with free representation provided by organizations like LSNYC and the Legal Aid Society.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump is going in the opposite direction. His proposed budget entirely eliminates funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the publically funded national nonprofit which provides 20 percent of LSNYC’s budget. LSNYC says that would amount to 7,500 fewer cases, and potential staffing cuts of some 110 employees.

If Congress does end up cutting all or some of this funding, New York City and State will be challenged to pick up the slack. Legal Aid, which offers criminal defense services in addition to housing help, already operates without federal funding and may become even more vital.

A day in housing court

On Thursday, people flitted up and down the stairwells of the housing court building — lawyers for both groups and clients alike use them because the elevators have been prone to breaking. Krishnaswamy says before recent upgrades clients could easily miss court appearances for that reason.

Lawyers can sometimes spare you a trip to court. Thursday morning an LSNYC lawyer texted and emailed with a disabled client who was at home during a negotiation. Another attorney sat waiting for a judge in place of his client, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran.

In one hearing, a man watched with a dazed expression as his Legal Aid attorney skillfully answered the judge’s questions and earned him extra time to find a new place before being evicted.

Speaking outside in the hallway, the man gave his name as Steve G., 56, an unemployed fashion designer whose partner had recently passed away in Georgia. Now he’s back in NYC trying to re-enter the workforce, but having trouble. He missed rent and was terrified of being forced into a shelter, where he wouldn’t be able to take his cat and belongings.

“I would not survive that.” He had a friend who offered a room starting April 7, and the lawyer had successfully bought him that time. He never took his thick pea coat off, collar turned up, throughout the proceedings.

Lawyers can change the balance of power

The rooms saw dozens of similar mini-dramas on Thursday — the Crown Heights woman who did it all herself as she had in the past, said her landlord just took her to court from time to time throughout their 20-year relationship, when she missed rent. She smiled and pointed to the check in her bag.

The young man from East Flatbush who refused to pay rent because there had been a three-month drip of water through his ceiling. The landlord promised to fix it within the month; he promised to pay the owed rent. He figured he’d be ok without a lawyer.

Another landlord, himself lawyerless, said he was on the verge of homelessness himself and his tenants wouldn’t move out.

In the hallway, lawyers and tenants and landlords conferred together and separately regarding their harsh subjects. A landlord’s lawyer could be overheard saying flatly of a tenant, “the guy is saying he’s HIV positive.”

Lorraine Mchayle sat on a bench, nearly falling asleep.

“Would you believe my father is taking me to court?” she asked. She was living in his Flatbush brownstone, he had a five-bedroom home in Florida. But he wanted her out.

The lawyer arrived. Mchayle saw him, immediately stood up and smiled. “He’s the wind beneath my wings.””

Mark Chiusano