Courting Trouble

Why Has the City’s Housing Agency Bounced a Proven Landlord Litigator?

In the past year, attorney Abbie Gorin has convinced housing court judges to send five of Brooklyn’s most recalcitrant landlords to jail. In 22 years at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), his reputation as a fair but relentless litigator has earned him the respect of even his most strident opponents. Gorin helped develop an innovative program to educate rather than fine some landlords who fail to provide heat or hot water. And in the past decade, Gorin has consistently received nothing less than outstanding reviews from his bosses.

So you'd think that HPD would be happy to keep Gorin at his post, fighting landlords who shirk the law and sometimes even endanger tenants. Instead, the agency has sent the 48-year-old Brooklyn native "into exile," says Gorin, yanking him out of the courtroom and dumping him behind a desk with vague instructions to advise litigants on how to navigate housing court.

Gorin says there are two reasons for the move, both purely political. The first is his history of union activity, which has made Gorin as much of a pain in the backside of his employer as he is to his courtroom foes. "I absolutely believe this was done in retaliation for my complaint against my supervisor," says Gorin, a member of the Civil Service Bar Association (CSBA), who last June filed a grievance because Ulysses Moulterie, an attorney with a lower civil service status than his own, was promoted to supervise him.

The second reason, Gorin says, is the pro-landlord bias of one of his bosses, HPD assistant commissioner Elizabeth Bolden, who is in charge of the housing litigation bureau where Gorin worked until he was transferred on March 7. Says Gorin, "I was told by several people that Elizabeth Bolden wanted to know why so many small landlords are going to jail."

It would seem beyond ironic for the chief of litigation at the city's housing agency to bemoan landlord lockups. But in what one source calls "a decidedly pro-landlord shift in the whole thrust of the agency under Mayor Rudy Giuliani," HPD has developed a strategy that, while aiming to prevent abandonment, often bolsters rather than battles landlords. "What we're doing," says one staffer, "is taking landlords who we used to sue and instead are propping them up."

In fact, Gorin's new stint is part of HPD's "Pathways to Responsible Ownership" program, designed to help housing court litigants who have no attorney, which almost always means tenants rather than landlords. But the program's goal of "streamlining" court procedures addresses landlords' long-standing complaint that it takes too long to win an eviction.

The possibility that Bolden in particular favors landlords stems from an escapade in Harlem in 1995—three years before she worked at HPD—in which she bought a single-room-occupancy building and emptied it of three long-term renters, including elderly tenant Barbara North, who complained that Bolden had nailed shut bathroom doors. In March 1996, Manhattan housing court judge Howard Malatzky ordered Bolden to make a good-faith effort to repair and provide access to a third-floor bathroom. But several weeks after Malatzky's deadline passed, Bolden wrote to North's attorney saying the repairs would not be made.

When the plumber began work, Bolden wrote, "I forgot that I still owed him money from December '95. . . . I do not have any money and am basically living paycheck to paycheck. I have other bills that are outstanding that must be paid. . . . So I'm sorry but right now I just don't have the money."

Bolden, who wanted the whole building to herself, negotiated to buy out the tenants for $500 each. Eventually, the tenants moved out, but Bolden's money problems continued. Last year, she settled a $12,841.36 credit card bill by agreeing to a monthly payment plan. Bolden, who worked as an attorney for the Bronx office of the Administration for Children's Services before coming to HPD in August 1998, earns more than $80,000 a year at the housing agency.

Bolden declined through HPD's press office to comment. HPD spokesperson Carol Abrams would not answer questions about Gorin's transfer, saying only that matters pertaining to Bolden "have been previously reviewed and have been determined not to affect her duties at HPD."

Gorin says he was not told why he was transferred, but says he made it clear to Bolden and other HPD higher-ups that he did not want to make the move, although sources say several other employees would like to. Gorin is grieving the move through his union, and CSBA business agent Saul Fishman says the union may take the issue further by filing an "improper practice" complaint. "What we're saying is that this was done in retaliation because of Abbie's union activity," says Fishman. "They're trying to both punish him and have a chilling effect on others."

This isn't the first time Gorin has registered complaints through the union; in fact, even his allies say Gorin's persistent criticisms of HPD account for the transfer. "They really hate Abbie higher up on the food chain at HPD, and they want to get him out of their hair," says one source. Gorin has regularly lambasted the agency about its inadequate number of attorneys (now about 30, down from a high of about 80) and its chronic shortage of inspectors. At the onset of the past few winters, Gorin has warned his bosses of his worry that the attorney shortage could undermine agency efforts to enforce heat requirements. And his willingness to talk to the press as a union member about those issues has done nothing to endear him to the increasingly clammed-up agency. "I have never disobeyed them," says Gorin. "But I have often told them things they don't want to hear."

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