Confusion in Housing Court as landlord attorneys come under attack from protesters
This past Wednesday, the Housing Court was expected to resume eviction proceedings against people with open warrants that were issued prior to the pandemic. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the eviction ban just a few hours before it was set to expire.
The result of that last-second announcement has only led to confusion as attorneys who practice in the Housing Court have complained that they aren’t getting clear instructions on the future of the court.
“Cuomo gives an executive order, as is his right, but then the Legislature drafts separate laws, such as Safe Harbor Act, then Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks will issue directions, then the NYC Civil Court Administrative Judge Anthony Cannataro will issue orders,” said attorney Jeffrey Saltiel. “Everyone is talking about what’s allowed to go on and the answer is that nobody knows.”
While evictions have been stayed by Gov. Cuomo, in-person appearances have resumed at the Brooklyn Housing Court, which has moved its physical location from 141 Livingston St. to 320 Jay St. to help social distancing within the courthouse.
To help practitioners answer questions about the types of cases they can bring forward, the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association hosted a Zoom meeting. Instead, there were more questions than answers.
“The idea is that we can file, maybe it will get submitted until they make another stay,” said attorney Matthew Ross. “We can’t evict, though, or do anything other than sit on our hind legs, basically, waiting for (court administrators) to do anything.”
Part of the problem stems from a lawsuit against the Office of Court Administration by legal service providers about reopening the Criminal Court for in-person appearances. This has made administrators hesitant to speak candidly.
While this confusion continues, tenants advocates, including the Crown Heights Tenant Union, have begun protesting at courthouses and targeting the offices of private attorneys who represent landlords.
On Wednesday, protesters stormed 26 Court St. and marched up to the third floor to the offices of Slochowsky & Slochowsky. Attorney Michele Slochowsky Hering said she called police as dozens of protesters entered the building and screamed at her and two female employees.
“They protested inside of my office, inside of the vestibule,” Slochowsky Hering said. “It was really alarming, to say the least. They were coming up the stairs, some up the elevator. I’m laughing now, but honestly it was nothing close to funny. It was outrageous. Me and two female staff members were here and that was it.
“They were banging the office door, chanting their chants like, go kill yourselves,” Slochowsky Hering said.
Other offices such as Stern & Stern and Balsamo Rosenblatt & Hall were also targeted by demonstrators.
“It’s designed to scare you, it’s designed to say look what you’re going to have to deal with to go forward,” said attorney Meryl Wenig. “They think by yelling and screaming that they are going to make it uncomfortable for you to do your job. I’m hired to do a job and I’m ethically obligated to go forward. Yelling at me for that makes no sense.”
While these attorneys primarily represent landlords, most have some tenants as clients and are quick to point out that many of their clients are individuals living in two-family homes who are just trying to make ends meet.
“I have a job to do, I was hired and I have to operate within ethical parameters,” Saltiel said. “My firm represents some tenants too. We advocate for both sides on the same day, and we’re trying to do the right thing.”
The Office of Court Administration did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, and neither did the Crown Heights Tenant Union. The CHTU did mention protesting at the lawyers’ offices in a press release and stated that it marched to offices of “landlord lawyers … who have earned their fortunes by helping landlords kick out families from their homes.”
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