Sasha Herman, Class of 2020; Sociology and Hispanic Studies Major
The Space is Biased: Navigating Eviction in Bronx Housing Court
The affordable housing crisis has had an immense toll on New York City renters. Many New Yorkers struggle to afford rent each month, and those that cannot are sued for eviction.
More than 2,000 people enter Bronx Housing Court daily, at risk of losing their homes. Stories of eviction and displacement are just as much a part of the fabric of New York City as anything else. Oftentimes we have discussions about the poverty that leads to eviction, and then hear about the poverty that follows, but I became fascinated with the intermediary: housing court. My initial interest started during my internship with Mobilization for Justice Inc., a legal services organization that defends low income tenants being evicted.
I was shocked by the reality of Bronx Housing Court. My own preconceptions about what accessing justice looked like were abruptly confronted with the true legal process that occurs in Bronx Housing Court. This led me to question my own understanding of what justice looked like in the United States. Justice is a word that summons sentiments of American patriotism, freedom, and democracy, and yet I found that the environment of housing court was not conducive nor representative of any of these concepts.
As sociologists we question how social structures reproduce inequality, and through my research I hoped to show that physical structures are just as culpable in the reproduction of inequality, particularly with the understanding that how we order physical space is a reflection of broader social structures.
My methodology involved eight interviews with low-income tenants with a current eviction case, and a week of observation within housing court.
According to the interviews and observations, I found that the physical space of Bronx Housing Court causes issues of accessibility for tenants. Broken elevators and escalators make access to the courtrooms difficult for tenants with disabilities. Long wait times put tenants in danger of missing their hearings with the judge, and consequentially defaulting their case (which allows an automatic win for the landlord).
According to my interviews, the environment of housing court fosters hostility and confusion. Tenants do not have a private space to confer with their lawyers and so their personal information is consistently exposed to the other people in the courthouse. Lack of clear instruction and resources for low-income tenants often make them vulnerable to signing stipulations and agreements that are often not in their best interests. The tenant experience in housing court is often characterized by isolation, confusion, and hostility. These individual experiences contribute to the disempowerment of tenants in housing court and throughout the legal process.
Looking forward, it is necessary to re-evaluate and redevelop the space of housing court in order to empower tenants, while also improving the policies, systems, and circumstances that lead tenants to housing court in the first place.