Tenants who face their landlords in housing court go up against experienced attorneys in the courtroom and when haggling in the hallways. Now imagine waging that battle without knowing what anyone is talking about.
That’s what Maria Cortes, 62, dealt with when her landlords tried to evict her after she refused to accept a buyout in exchange for leaving her Brooklyn apartment.
“It’s very frustrating to talk to someone and know they don’t understand you,” says Cortes, who switches between fragmented English and speaking Spanish through a translator. “It was difficult, it was very difficult.”
Cortes isn’t alone. On February 23, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer slammed the state’s housing court system for being nearly unnavigable for non–English speakers, and he sent an open letter to New York State’s chief administrative judge, Gail Prudenti, to take action and make housing courts more accessible by offering more translators and more multilingual signs.
The tenants’-rights push comes shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $36 million plan to provide free lawyers to tenants in rezoned neighborhoods who deal with harassment or building neglect.
The same day that Stringer celebrated de Blasio’s proposal, he visited a Bronx housing court with local tenants’-rights activists. Stringer said he was shocked by the lack of signs in multiple languages: “What we found was an outrageous insult to thousands of New Yorkers,” he said. “Understanding the court system is critical if you’re going to be able to stay in your apartment.”
Stringer sent staff from his office to visit housing courts in every borough. There, they learned tenants often wait hours for an interpreter and sometimes have their court dates rescheduled because not enough interpreters are available. They learned that interpreters don’t work outside the courtrooms, where many landlords’ lawyers approach tenants to haggle for a settlement. And they learned that while the state’s housing courts post a “We Speak Your Language” sign informing litigants that they have the right to an interpreter, the courts included few bilingual signs in English and Spanish and no other signs in any other languages.
Nearly 2 million New Yorkers speak limited English, according to New York City statistics.
“We want more services, we want more interpreters,” says Cortes, the tenant who, after repeated visits to housing court, finally won her right to stay in her home. “But most importantly, we want respect.”
Some people might consider Spanish-speakers like Cortes to be the lucky ones. Information for self-represented litigants in housing court is currently available only in English and Spanish — those aren’t particularly helpful languages for the 135,000 Queens residents who speak Chinese or Korean. More than 90 percent of tenants in housing court are representing themselves.
That’s why Stringer’s letter to Prudenti calls for more signs reminding tenants of their rights to an interpreter, more help centers in courts where tenants can receive printed information on tenants’ rights in multiple languages, and more interpreters, especially in languages other than Spanish.
Advocates have complained about subpar conditions for non–English speakers in the city’s housing courts for decades. A 1987 article in the New York Times said that “tenants who do not speak English are often not provided an interpreter before they are asked to sign court findings and participate in trials.” And more recently, in 2011, advocacy group Make the Road New York recommended that the officials who oversee Brooklyn’s housing court improve “language access, including more consistent access to interpretation services” and translate “signs and forms into the six languages most commonly spoken in Kings County.”
But while David Bookstaver, a spokesperson for the New York State Unified Court System, says that his office will be discussing the critique with Stringer, he stands by the state department’s work.
“Stringer went through and took a brief snapshot of this city’s housing courts,” he says. “He may not understand we are a national leader in this regard.”
Bookstaver adds that the state’s court system, riddled with recent budget cuts, had done its best to keep all the city’s courts accessible to people without a lot of cash on hand.
The department has 270 interpreters on staff, and “per diem” relationships with between 500 and 600 freelance translators. From January 1 to February 23, in New York City alone, the New York State Unified Court System provided interpreters for over 7,000 court appearances, in 57 different languages.
“We’re not perfect,” Bookstaver says. “But we do set the bar around the country.”