By Jena Ardell
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It was already after 11, but the morning rush at Brooklyn Housing Court was still in full swing, with the crowd surrounding Patricia Lemon's desk growing steadily. A young man led an elderly blind woman who was being evicted by the New York City Housing Authority; she needed to know which courtroom to report to. A woman with her baby in a stroller spoke no English and needed help responding to her Sunset Park landlord's dispossess notice. A gray-haired Caribbean man held a crumpled notice from a city marshal, who had already hauled away all his furniture and changed the locks on his Woodruff Avenue apartment. Clearly confused, the man told Lemon, "I don't live nowhere right now."
Every morning until at least noon, Lemon or another staffer from the Citywide Task Force on Housing Court sits at a table in a grimy corridor of Brooklyn's housing court, where a daily sea of landlords and tenants come to battle over their homes and their property. Although Lemon's main purpose is to help tenants navigate the treacherous waters of the court, she also fields questions from landlords and even from others using the nearby small-claims court.
With a table in the housing court of every borough but Staten Island, the task force assists about 60,000 people a year, many of whom are but a step away from eviction and maybe homelessness. That the task force operates on a budget comparable to the price of an unremarkable Manhattan coop about $300,000 is impressive. The only thing more astounding is that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants to pull the plug on the project, cutting $263,000, about 70 percent of its total budget.
"We're making the rounds, trying to get the council to restore it," says task force director Angelita Anderson. "It's the same thing we went through last year, and I still haven't restored the staff I lost then," a total of five workers. Now, the task force has six employees; three are part-time, including Lemon, a student at John Jay College.
Last year's cuts came from Governor George Pataki, who axed Anderson's program apparently in retaliation for her opposition to a particularly nasty antitenant provision that Pataki forced on renters in the 1997 battle over rent laws. The city council restored that money, but this year, Giuliani took his turn at slicing it out.
While the Giuliani administration's appreciation of the housing crisis is surely in doubt, the mayor's slash is probably based in more primal politics: His housing budget for fiscal year 2000 would cut just about every cent that the city council budgeted in for fiscal 1999. "The only thing I can think of is that the mayor cut it out simply because the council put it in," says Anne Pasmanick, director of the Community Training and Resource Center (CTRC), whose innovative program to teach delinquent landlords the basics of providing heat would be put out of business by a Giuliani-proposed $200,000 cut. "That's the level of sophistication things run on these days."
Among the items Giuliani would defund: $1.3 million to pay for housing inspectors; $2 million for eviction-prevention services and legal help for tenants of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels; $1 million for community housing consultants; and, along with the cuts to Anderson's and Pasmanick's groups, another $361,000 in various housing-related services. Spokespeople for the mayor and for his Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) did not return calls.
"It's our whole budget," says Elizabeth Kane, who runs the West Side SRO Law Project and who, along with an East Side SRO project, would lose $900,000 under Giuliani's plan. Right now, the city council is preparing an alternative budget; both sides have until June 5 to come to an agreement.
"This has happened every year since Giuliani was elected, and we get worried and stressed and strained," says Kane. "The council has faithfully restored us, but never fully. We were better off, for instance, in 1995 than we are now. We're asking this year, since the city has a surplus [of $2.1 billion], to get back to that level." Kane says Giuliani should spend more on eviction prevention simply because it's cheaper than housing homeless people. "It baffles me," says Kane.
One of the more mystifying mayoral cuts is to CTRC's Landlord Training Program. Begun in 1997, the program is a sort of alternative sentencing for first-time offenders; in this case, the offenders being landlords who have failed to provide tenants with heat and hot water. Rather than fining such landlords and taking them to court, HPD can send them to CTRC's classes, where they spend nine hours over three weeks learning the basics of building, and especially boiler, maintenance.
"So far, the experience has been uniformly good," says Pasmanick. "It bore out the idea that these are low-income immigrant owners who can't absorb the cost of the fine and needed to learn to be able to run their system." Originally offered only in Brooklyn, this year classes were held in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx as well; just more than 200 landlords attended this year, says Pasmanick.
And while the classes began in February, CTRC began planning them last July. But it wasn't until a week ago that Pasmanick got HPD to sign the contract for the classes that CTRC conducted this past winter. "We've worked this entire time without a contract, we've completed the program, we've taken out loans to pay people, and now we find he's cutting us for the next year," says Pasmanick. "It's been a real ordeal, and it's not just us, but groups all over the city. It gives a picture of how bad it is with this administration. They just do not play well with others."