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Comptroller Stringer, Outside Bronx Housing Court, Backs Right to Counsel Bill

COMPTROLLER SCOTT STRINGER (at microphone) runs down the benefits of the Right to Counsel bill that would create a public defender apparatus for tenants going through Bronx Housing Court. Photo by Jenny Sharp
COMPTROLLER SCOTT STRINGER (at microphone) runs down the benefits of the Right to Counsel bill that would create a public defender apparatus for tenants going through Bronx Housing Court.
Photo by Jenny Sharp

by DAVID CRUZ 

The city’s money man is standing behind a New York City Council bill that would provide public defenders to represent tenants going through Bronx Housing Court, a courthouse marred with delays and confusion.

But finding the money to fund Intro 214, also known as the Right to Counsel bill, is the next step in determining whether the bill is even pragmatic, said Comptroller Scott Stringer, who met with housing advocates Feb. 4. His support comes ahead of the so-called budget dance, where special interest and community groups press the city for further funding to their causes. And though the Right to Counsel bill is still waiting in the wings in the City Council, Stringer is now asking his auditors to begin prodding the city’s budget to determine the bill’s feasibility.

“[W]e are certainly going to analyze the mayor’s preliminary budget plan to figure out ways to prioritize what the city can do to subsidize a right to counsel process,” said Stringer, standing outside Bronx Housing Court on the Grand Concourse alongside advocates for Community Action for Safe Apartments. Stringer added he’s committed to heading to Albany with Mayor Bill de Blasio to convince the Albany Legislature to partially fund the bill.

Stringer’s remarks came after touring the troubled courthouse . Taking note of some of his findings, Stringer saw that the court system lacks bilingual signage for an area that’s largely made up of Latinos and Hispanics. He called the observation “depressing.”

An analysis by CASA estimated it would cost roughly $1200 to $3200 to fund each housing-related case, while saving money in creating homeless shelters for evicted tenants. The bill, introduced by Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson and Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine, was introduced in December. Housing has remained a critical issue at a time when the de Blasio administration is looking to increase the affordable housing stock.

Housing advocates say the bill would improve the overloaded housing court, but also ease the burden of tenants who often rearrange their schedules to represent themselves before the court.

“The lines are long, the place is inadequate for the volume of people that come here. There’s not enough information on the first floor. You have an information office on the second floor that is understaffed and unmanned and underbudget as well,” said Joseph Cepeda, a CASA member familiar with the courtroom. He too observed the system, where tenants are often “lost and bewildered.”

In many instances the deck is stacked against tenants left to interpret the housing laws on their own as a more skillful attorney representing the landlord understands the nuances to certain laws better.

Cepeda and other members suspect that landlords employ legal tricks to ultimately remove a tenant from a home and effectively increase the rent for the now vacant apartment.

Stringer expects the bill can also keep tenants in their home, reversing the homeless trend in the city.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Stringer. “So if you stop an eviction, you stop someone from going through a system.”

Reach David Cruz at (718) 324-4998 or dcruz@norwoodnews.org. 

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