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Courting Trouble

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."

One coworker suggests that Gorin has made enemies by bringing his suspicions of HPD corruption to agency investigators. "Now he's in a no-man's-land where he can't use his talents, while we barely have enough attorneys as it is."

Indeed, it is arguably Gorin's confrontational style that accounts for his courtroom scorecard. "Abbie is one of the most fierce HPD attorneys; he's excellent," says Robert Rosenblatt, a landlord lawyer whose clients have been among Gorin's targets. "He's an intelligent, vigorous opponent who knows the law inside and out. He's more aggressive for HPD than most other attorneys I know. As a landlord attorney, I'd rather not face him; he hurts my clients. But as a tenant, I'd absolutely want him. HPD has done a great disservice taking him out of the courtroom."

Gorin, who joined HPD in 1978, has always been outspoken and even philosophical, considering the workaday grind that can wear down anyone who spends days, much less years, in housing court. He's as quick to analyze the realpolitik that might motivate a particular judge's ruling as he is to launch into a mini-lecture on economics or ethics. "I believe that real estate is like any market and has to be protected from rogue players and slumlords," says Gorin. "That's separate from a moral position that says they violate tenants' rights. You also have to look at how the market operates. Rogue players tend to discourage investment and reinvestment, and it's in the city's interest to stop that."

In his tenure, Gorin has seen HPD decline from an aggressive enforcer into its current emaciated state. He was involved in litigation against some of Brooklyn's most notorious landlords, including "Dracula Landlord" J. Leonard Spodek, and still feels the sting of a 20-year-old newspaper column that blamed his inexperience for the hypothermia that killed a tenant in a heatless Fort Greene apartment.

"I remember that story about John Grimes at 254 Vanderbilt Avenue; he was only in his sixties and Michael Daly wrote a column blaming me," says Gorin, who was a young lawyer when he was pursuing Grimes's landlord in court. While he insists the newsman's blame was misplaced, "it all came back to me when Lena Hurt died."

Hurt was a senior citizen who was found dead in her sweltering Brooklyn apartment in July 1998. Her landlord, Absolum Hunter, was in the midst of a long-running legal battle with HPD, which was represented by Gorin. Hunter had told news reporters he wanted tenants out of the building because they paid no rent. HPD charged that Hunter had been running the boiler in the summer, and inspectors recorded a temperature of 104 degrees in Hurt's apartment. The medical examiner concluded that Hurt died of heart disease, but Gorin says he has always wondered what effect the broiling apartment had on Hurt's health. Just last month, Brooklyn housing court judge Ava Alterman sentenced Hunter to 30 days in jail for contempt because he failed to make repairs. However, the landlord has not served that sentence, partly because, since Gorin was transferred, no one has followed up on necessary paperwork with Alterman. HPD spokesperson Abrams says Gorin's workload will be handled through "load balancing and productivity increases."

Meanwhile, Gorin reports daily to his new post. He consults with volunteer attorneys who guide tenants through housing court, or gives advice himself. And while he acknowledges that the post could be useful and a "potentially good job for someone who wants to do it," he laments that his bosses haven't given him more than a seven-sentence job description.

"I'm fairly bummed out that I can't ever bring a court case on behalf of the city again," says Gorin. "But aside from that, I don't even know quite what I'm supposed to do in this job. I've been sent here as a eunuch. If I were given a mandate, I could be hell on wheels."


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