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Frank Macaluso chooses his steps carefully. Diabetic, partially blind, and slowed down by a painful right leg, the 67-year-old East Harlem tenant finds traveling even short distances a challenge. But Macaluso is motivated by a powerful goal: to sue his landlord. Disgusted with the black mold that creeps along his bathroom walls and ceiling, the leaks that he says turn his house into Niagara Falls, and the vermin, including a rat that Macaluso says "barricaded me out of my apartment for two days," the former hospital maintenance worker has trekked from the Second Avenue apartment where he has lived since 1943 to Manhattan's housing court, near Canal Street, in hopes of forcing his landlord to make repairs.
"It's horrible what they put me through. I got a headache from the runaround. They gave it to me so bad, I don't have to go to the gym. I get all sorts of exercise here."
But rather than proving fruitful, the journey has only been frustrating. As Macaluso was bounced from judge to judge, forced to abide by an ill-informed judicial order, and repeatedly scheduled for days when the appropriate court was closed, his aggravation grew to the point where this well-mannered man, who apologizes for saying the word "bathroom" when discussing his apartment, ended up screaming obscenities at his landlord's lawyer, who had dismissed his concerns as "bullshit."
"It's horrible what they put me through," says Macaluso. "I got a headache from the runaround. They gave it to me so bad, I don't have to go to the gym. I get all sorts of exercise here."
Macaluso's courtroom drama stems from a new plan that officials say is aimed, ironically, at increased efficiency. Since September 11, the section of the Manhattan court where tenants and the city's housing agency can sue landlords (called the HP part) has been open only three days a week, down from a onetime high of five days. Each year, on average, 2230 HP cases are filed in Manhattan. Citing a citywide reorganization of civil court judges, Administrative Judge Fern Fisher-Brandveen says the reorganization should meet tenants' needs. "We think three days a week will be adequate," says Fisher-Brandveen, partly because the part will no longer handle certain types of evictions. She says additional HP days can be added if necessary, especially during the heating season.
Last year, the Manhattan HP part shrank from five to four days because the shortage of attorneys at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development made it impossible to staff the court full-time. HPD and court cuts mean less pressure on rogue landlords, and more agitation for tenants.
Macaluso's court troubles started in earnest after Shirley Kornreich, a civil court judge who does not usually handle housing cases, declined to sign a routine order. Macaluso ended up in Kornreich's courtroom because the day he had been told to return to court turned out to be a day when the HP part was closed.
Kornreich was filling in. Macaluso wanted Kornreich to sign papers enforcing an earlier order of Housing Court Judge Jerald Klein, directing Macaluso's landlord, Tee Pamon, to make repairs. An August 17 HPD inspection found seven violations in Macaluso's apartment. Threea defective fire escape, a broken ceiling, and flourishing mold in the bathroomwere rated as Class C, requiring repair within 24 hours. Four others were rated as Class B, to be repaired in 20 calendar days. But by September 11the day Macaluso came before Kornreich and the day that the new HP part policy went into effectonly the fire escape had been fixed.
Kornreich refused to sign, saying she had no proof that the landlord had been served with papers. Sources say some HP part judges would phone HPD to verify that service had been made. Kornreich made no such call. She also reasoned that not enough time had elapsed for the landlord to make repairs, apparently disregarding the C-class violations. "Whatever information I had is what I decided it on," Kornreich told the Voice. "It's not what we usually deal with. Are there mistakes? I assume there are because you don't always have everything in front of you."
Abbie Gorin, an HPD attorney assigned to assist lawyerless litigants in housing court, intervened, and another judge restored Macaluso's case to the calendar. He was told to return on September 25a Monday, and therefore a day when the HP part is closed. Other tenants were in the same predicament; Housing Court Supervising Judge Ernest Cavallo spent part of his morning apologizing to litigants who had been scheduled for that day. Cavallo told Macaluso to return on September 28.
Fisher-Brandveen acknowledges that Macaluso's case became unusually complicated, attributing his various problems to "a glitch" and "a screw-up on our part," due to the program's newness.
On September 28, a judge ordered Macaluso's landlord to schedule repairs for October 2 and 3. At press time, Macaluso was awaiting workers.
That, too, has been a tribulation for Macaluso, who says he's missed medical appointments waiting for repairmen. Ben Kaplan, the attorney for Pamon, says Macaluso has refused to let workers in, and wrote him a letter threatening eviction. That dispute sparked the shouting match outside Cavallo's courtroom.
Pamon's workers could repair more than Macaluso's apartment. City records show the six-floor tenement has 397 violations, including 67 that are immediate hazards. Despite the infractions, Macaluso says he pays his rent$41.25 a month"the minute it's due." His low rent is due to his rent-controlled status and a state-ordered rollback based on poor conditions. Kaplan says Pamon doesn't apply for annual rent increases since the most he'd get is a 7.5 percent hike.
In the meantime, Macaluso continues to live in a decrepit four-room apartment with only the sparsest furnishings. "I could buy some nice things, but what's the point?" asks Macaluso. "They only get damaged in here. But don't get me wrong. It's not that I feel sorry for myself. I just have to survive."