There is never a dull moment in the hallway on the fourth floor.
On one Monday morning, one woman in an electric red wheelchair broke down in tears as she waited for the elevator. Another woman stormed out into the stairwell, cursing as people moved out of her way.
There are people in suits and people in sweatpants, men and women, old and young. Parents often come pushing strollers. It is like the DMV, only worse.
This is Brooklyn Housing Court, where landlords and tenants face off over nonpayment of rent, unfixed repairs, and other problems involved in apartment living. While landlords nearly always hire their own lawyers, tenants almost universally show up alone, unprepared for the bureaucracy that awaits them. Unless, of course, they have a volunteer to help them.
In a city grappling with record rates of homelessness, the Volunteer Lawyer for a Day program is a small but important safeguard that gives people a chance to stay in their homes. Unlike criminal cases, litigants in civil cases are not assigned a free attorney—the volunteer lawyers try to bridge that gap.
“The whole point is to even out the balance between the landlords and the tenants,” said Tom Mennecke, a volunteer lawyer.
The volunteer lawyers work under New York State Courts Access to Justice Program, run by the New York State Unified Court System. The Access to Justice Program declares its mission is to “increase access, improve the delivery of justice, and promote public confidence in the courts.”
The Volunteer Lawyer for a Day program has specific criteria as to what kind of cases they can get involved with, rules defined during the pilot phase of the program. They only take on clients who live in rent stabilized housing and who are in housing court because of non-payment. They don’t accept people who live in public housing, Section 8 housing, co-ops, or condos. They deal with repair issues tangentially, if they are a factor in the non-payment. The lawyers are not allowed to represent the client at trial, but then again, only a tiny fraction of housing cases actually go to trial. The vast majority of cases are settled.
But even without going to trial, tenants still must show up in housing court to answer the claim made against them. “I’ve seen people in housing court lose work because they’re in court. They have to miss work to be here, and then they end up losing another job,” said Dale Melchert, a volunteer lawyer and recent CUNY Law graduate.
Throughout the morning, the lawyers and their clients go in and out of a small crowded courtroom, with its wooden pews and beige linoleum floor. It is quieter in here than the bustling hallway outside, a quiet guarded by the court officers, who shush people with increasing urgency as the day drags on.
The volunteer lawyers are in charge of recruiting their own clients. They do this in the afternoon, by walking around in another room in the building, the Clerk’s Office, and ask a basic question: Does anyone need legal help?
Many people they talk to are not rent stabilized, and therefore, they cannot take on their cases. But they can give them legal advice. “I wish you guys were here last week!” said one woman, playfully boxing the arm of a volunteer lawyer. They were, in fact—but only on Mondays and Wednesdays. The clients that the volunteer lawyers collect are purely a matter of chance—whoever was sitting in the right place at the right time when the lawyers were recruiting. And whoever met their criteria.
On one day in April, the volunteers got an atypical client—a banker from Williamsburg. The banker, like many people in housing court, did not want to volunteer his name out of concern for his job—housing court carries a social stigma. The banker said that several apartments in his building had taken buyouts from the new landlord, who took over the building last year, and he has also noticed two eviction signs. After paying rent every month, and without any other kind of warning, he found a court summons taped to his front door.
The new landlord claimed that the banker wasn’t paying his full rent. When the banker told them to check the lease, they told him that he didn’t have a lease. The banker didn’t have the lease either—he said he forgot to make a copy.
The banker thinks that this is all a strategy to get him out of a rent-stabilized apartment. “They could have offered me 60K, but this is a cheaper way,” he said.
The banker’s case ping ponged back and forth between the courtroom and the hallway. In front of the judge a second time, the issue of the missing lease was brought up again. “Unfortunately what we have here is a comedy of errors,” said Judge McClanahan.
After several hours, the banker and his volunteer lawyer settled the case with the opposing counsel. The case was discontinued, and a stipulation for repairs to a hole in the kitchen ceiling was written into the discontinuance.
“The opposing counsel was hoping to get it done very quickly,” said Mennecke. Without a lawyer, the banker might have agreed to have the case dismissed without creating a paper trail for repairs. However, the banker is prepared for further action from the landlord to try and get him out of his apartment.
He has a good job and an MBA, but the banker said he would be overwhelmed if he were doing this alone without an attorney.
“For people who don’t have a lawyer, who have to go through this, it would be heartbreaking,” he said.