Five Minute Justice--A Summary of The City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court

The City-Wide Task Force On Housing Court (CWTFHC) is a coalition of more than 100 community groups, legal service organizations, and housing advocates. The CWTFHC was formed over eighteen years ago to coordinate the efforts of previously formed borough task forces and continues to provide assistance to hundreds of thousands of tenants in Housing Court each year.

Housing Court: Is Anyone Paying Attention?
Although created in 1973, the Housing Court of the Civil Court of the City of New York has only infrequently been the subject of scrutiny. The history of the Court has shown it to be the source of much promise and controversy, but it has been examined only through sporadic review, periodic auditing, and an occasional specialized study. The need to document the Court's practices led the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court to document some of its routine observations. In 1986, the Task Force released its report, entitled "Five Minute Justice: Ain't Nothing Going On But the Rent."

The research included observations of nearly 3,000 cases in every pre-trial, mediation, and trial parts citywide. It also included analysis of the Court files in about 10 percent of the cases observed, examination of the violations on buildings in a smaller sample of cases, interviews with half of the Housing Court judges, and other analyses. Courtroom observations took place in November 1983 and February 1984. Interviews with judges took place during the Fall of 1983.

"...A Workable Program for the Improvement of Housing"?
New York City's current code enforcement practices and the establishment of the Housing Court were the result of the threats by the Federal Government to withdraw funds under the Federal Housing Act of 1954 unless the city developed "a workable program for the improvement of housing." Based on recommendations from a study by the Legislative Drafting Research Fund of Columbia University, the Housing Court was established in 1972 to promote "effective enforcement of state and local laws for building maintenance."

As it functions today, however, the Court has little impact on building maintenance. Findings of this study show that landlords who are seeking rent payments bring most cases.

Poor...and Without An Attorney:
Tenants in the Housing Court, usually as respondents, largely represent the City's most vulnerable population: 80 percent are Black or Hispanic; 66 percent are women; nearly 50 percent received some form of public assistance.

Overall, 79 percent of the tenants have no legal representation. In contrast, landlords were much more likely than tenants to be represented by an attorney: over 78 percent were represented citywide.

"...Bottom Rung of the Ladder":
Observer notes and judge's comments showed physical conditions in the courts to be crowded, noisy, smoky, poorly lit, and with inadequate seating.

Several judges lamented that Housing Court was "...the bottom rung of the ladder, " and that "because we serve minorities and poor, there is less emphasis on the facilities and services we provide."

Justice in 5 Minutes:
The report observed that Judges' comments about the problems with an apparent search for solutions were not necessarily borne out by their actions in the courtrooms. Nearly 44 percent of all pre-trial conferences before a judge lasted for five minutes. Eighty-one percent of all cases in pre-trial hearings before a judge and half of all trials lasted less than 15 minutes. In nearly 59 percent of these pre-trail hearings, no explanations were given to provide unrepresented tenants an understanding of the purpose or process of the hearing. This percentage rose to 68 percent when the tenant was Black or Hispanic.

Nonpayment of Rent -- What the Court Does Best:
Nearly 64 percent of all cases observed were nonpayment, and 19 percent of all cases were holdovers (actions to recover possession of apartments) brought by landlords. Approximately 62 percent of the tenants raised the issue of repairs in the apartment as a reason for withholding rent. However, even in those cases when a tenant claimed that violations exist, the majority of cases did not address or resolve the issue of repairs.

Data show that the great majority of tenants in Housing Court occupy buildings with extremely high numbers of violations and that violations were high at the time of the initial observations and have increased since. Inspection reports were available only in 31 percent of the cases observed, and judges requested inspections in only 27 percent of the cases and consulted computer terminals (made available be the City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development for judges to learn of such violations) only 16 percent of the time.

Issue of Repairs Legitimate, But Ignored:
To explore why tenants might be exaggerating the need for repairs or using this as an excuse for nonpayment, violations were studied for buildings in cases when tenants did and did not raise the issue of repairs, and both groups of buildings were compared to buildings citywide.

For buildings where tenants did cite repairs as an issue, the average number of violations per unit (1.08) was more than twice the average number for buildings where tenants did not raise the issue (0.53) in 1983. (By 1985 buildings where repairs had been an issue in 1983, violations per unit increased to 1.95; for buildings where repairs had not been an issue, violations per unit rose to 1.48).

Citywide, nearly 70 percent of all buildings have a total of 10 or fewer violations and only 7 percent of all buildings have more than 50 violations of record. By contrast, the study sample when violations were an issue, 34 percent of the buildings in 1983 and 60 percent of the buildings in 1985 had more than 50 violations of record. When violations were not an issue, 25 percent of the buildings in 1983 and 40 percent of the buildings in 1985 had more than 50 violations raised.

The only buildings in which total violations and violations per unit decreased from 1983 to 1985 were in those cases where the settlement agreement made payment back rent conditional on repairs.

When a tenant raised the issue of violations, 47 percent of the buildings in the study were one or more quarters in tax arrears, with an average of 8.2 percent quarters in arrears.

Settlements in the Hallway:
Most cases (70%) that were observed in Housing Court were resolved through settlements called stipulations ("stips"). Almost 71% of the stips observed were written by a landlord's attorney. In 10.6% of the cases, the stip was written by either the tenant (1.2 %), or the tenant's attorney (9.4 %).

Although the observations surrounding the stipulations might suggest a more direct role of the judge to both clarify and explain the consequences of the agreement, especially to an unrepresented litigant, the study did not find this to be the case. In 432 percent of the cases, judges did not ask if both sides understood the terms of the stipulations signed.

Recommendations for Change:
As a result of these and other findings, the Task Force has become even more concerned about the condition of the City's housing stock and the growing problem of homelessness among the City's poor and moderate-income residents. The Task Force makes numerous specific procedural recommendations concerning the Housing Court in its report. Some of the general policy related recommendations are:

*Mandated right to counsel for tenants unable to afford an attorney for all proceedings.

*Revision of pre-trail hearing procedures to prevent "hallway stipulation." That is, when either party is unrepresented by counsel, all negotiations must occur in the presence of court personnel.

*"Clean hands" requirements of owners for buildings to correct serious violations of the City's Housing Maintenance Code and in compliance with NYC tax payments before bringing nonpaymnent actions into court.

*Requirement that judges make use of computer terminals and inspections to identify existence of violations and insist that removal of part of any final judgment, whether tenant raises the issue or not. Requirement that such agreements make the payment of rent conditional on the completion of the necessary repairs.

*Use of plain, multi-language court forms, which can be easily understood, and are not written in intimidating legalese.

*Increased emphasis on enforcement of the Housing Maintenance Code, as originally mandated, including greater coordination between the Court and HPD, increased collection and "tracking" of fines, penalties and judgments levied in Housing Court.