New York City

Comptroller Stringer calls for more interpreters, language help in Housing Courts

February 23, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Comptroller Scott Stringer, at podium, pushed for more language help for non-English speakers in Housing Courts, in Downtown Brooklyn on Monday. Shown left- Assemblyperson Jo Anne Simon. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Comptroller
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Fighting your landlord in court is bad enough. It’s even worse if you can’t understand a word of what’s going on, says New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.

Saying that Housing Courts don’t do enough for those who can’t speak English, Stringer called for language help for immigrants at a press conference in Downtown Brooklyn on Monday.

“In a city with nearly two million individuals with ‘limited English proficiency,’ it is outrageous that tenants in our housing courts wait hours for interpreters, help desks often can’t provide necessary services, and multi-lingual signage and literature are inadequate,” Stringer said in a statement.  

Tenants’ advocates say that wait times for interpreters can extend for many hours and sometimes force postponements to other days. As a result, litigants often succumb to landlord attorneys who push them to negotiate outside courtrooms without an interpreter.

The number of foreign-born residents has increased drastically over the last four decades. In 1970, roughly 18 percent of New Yorkers were foreign-born. In 2010, that figure was up to 37 percent, according to the Census and the NYC Department of City Planning.

Roughly half of the city’s residents speak a language other than English at home. A quarter of New York City residents — $1.8 million – are not English proficient, according to the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs.

Half of those falling into the non-proficient category speak Spanish. Roughly 16 percent speak Chinese, and six percent speak Russian.

Stringer sent a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti, who oversees the administration and operation of the New York State’s Unified Court System, calling on her to fix the problem.

The comptroller’s suggestions include providing adequate interpretation services, beefing up help centers, installing multi-lingual signs and printing up multi-lingual materials.

He also pointed out specific weaknesses in each borough. Brooklyn’s housing court, for example, features “poorly marked signs leading to interpreters on the second floor,” Stringer said.

Advocates from a number of organizations backed Stringer’s efforts

“Each year, tens of thousands of Brooklyn families fight homelessness in Brooklyn Housing Court, navigating a complex legal system where more than 95 percent of landlords have lawyers and more than 90 percent of tenants do not,” the Flatbush Tenant Coalition said in a statement. “For families who speak a language other than English, the deck is stacked even higher…”

“Housing court is a tough place to fend for yourself when you are an unrepresented tenant trying to preserve a roof over your head. Those difficulties are compounded when, in addition, you don’t speak English,” said Luis Henriquez, supervising attorney at the non-profit Make the Road New York.


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