Facing eviction without a lawyer

Amoy Bailey broke her leg, missed work, fell behind in rent, ended up at Bronx Housing Court.

Housing insecurity in the United States has mushroomed in this coronavirus pandemic. Millions of Americans are at risk of becoming evicted. I know what that’s like. When I became physically disabled in a fluke car crash, could no longer work and fell behind in my rent, my New York City landlord quickly filed papers to have me evicted.

Unable to find a pro bono lawyer to represent me, I had to go it alone. Not unusual, unfortunately. Only 10% of tenants in housing court have legal counsel, while 90% of landlords do.

I did, however, learn I had two issues working in my favor. First, the landlord had failed to deliver my eviction papers according to protocol. Second, he had also refused to fix numerous housing code violations, e.g. brown tap water, ceiling holes and leaks. I filed the necessary court forms for both.

But I’ll tell you something. Actually being in the court room, not knowing up from down about its laws, regs, and loopholes when you’re fighting for your life and all you’ve accomplished, heightened anxiety renders you incapable of functioning at your best. Too often, I realize now, I was just following my nose instead of keeping these two critical issues in the forefront.

I arrived in the New York City courtroom alone, passed the all-important advocacy table in the entryway outside, and rushed to the court’s uniformed officer to be marked present. Since it wasn’t yet nine o’clock, I asked permission to speak with advocate. But when I got there, two women were already in line. Scared they’d call my name in the court room and I’d lose the case because I wasn’t there, I rushed back to the officer to ask if I still had time. “Go ahead,” he said, adding another word or two which I didn’t catch. Something by his tone and look conveyed not only power over me, control (which, of course, he had), but also condescension and a level of suspicion, as though I were trying to get one over on him.

When it was finally my turn, the advocate brought up stipulations of settlement, a binding agreement between landlord and tenant. She warned about the hallway stipulation or “hallway stip” in which the landlord’s lawyer takes the tenant away from the courtroom to settle the case. If I preferred to go before the judge instead, she said, I had that right.

Inside, the court attorney called my case. I approached her station, as did the landlord’s lawyer. Either she assumed I understood the procedure and my rights or was unconcerned that I didn’t because, right away, she instructed me to follow him out. Yeah. The dreaded hallway stip. She probably didn’t think I knew about that. I didn’t want to go, but didn’t feel I had a choice.

Out there, he was in charge. He tried various approaches to force my signature, pledging I would pay a monthly amount so indisputably beyond my current means that I would default the very first month. He knew I was out of my depth. He was banking on it. Yet I stood my ground each time until he gave up.

When the court attorney recalled our case, she urged me to have a “conference” – a threesome with her, the landlord’s lawyer, and me – an even more intimidating process since, together, they’d form a tag team. I refused this, too. I wanted the judge.

Finally the moment arrived. Standing up against the rich mahogany wall of the judge’s bench, I handed him documents I prepared detailing the improper delivery of eviction papers and the housing code violations. In answer to my question, he explained ways this could all play out. I couldn’t focus well enough to follow. I only remember his saying, “And then if that happens, you’ll be evicted.” With no breath of time after hearing that word “evicted,” all my repressed terror burst open. Tears flooded my eyes, streamed down my face and out of my nose, and I couldn’t stop. But there was something I really wanted him to know, so I met his eyes and mouthed the words, “I’ve never not paid my rent before.” His eyes conveyed empathy. That, I remember well.

He told me to sit down and compose myself. I crawled back to the pews, head down, sobbing. Lack of privacy intensified the demoralization in court, but that’s part of the whole process of falling from grace in the US. What has always been private becomes public. I have no memory of having stepped up to the judge’s bench again that day, though I may have.

Back with the court attorney, a surprise. She adjourned the case to give the landlord’s lawyer time to locate the process server who supposedly delivered my eviction notice. Now why wasn’t this brought up earlier? Before I was ordered out for the hallway stip? How could that be right? Were the judge to find that the papers had been improperly served, the eviction case against me would have been dismissed. The landlord would surely refile, but it would buy me that precious commodity: time. Time to heal, get back to work, catch up on rent.

The court attorney ordered me to return the following Thursday. I explained that I was scheduled for surgery on my spine on Thursday. She seemed not to believe me, as was her pattern. I didn’t trust her, didn’t like the way her eyes failed to meet mine in our exchanges. She saw no equal in me. She granted me an extension of only seven days. I knew that would never be enough time to recover, and in fact it wasn’t, but I hadn’t a shred of strength left in me to argue.

More court appearances followed. The landlord’s process server never showed up, the housing code violations were never addressed. In that calendar year, 44,572 NYC households were evicted by court order. One of them was mine.

(By Joy Ann Juvelis, Ph.D.)

(Photo Credit: City Limits / Adi Talwar)

(Joy Ann Juvelis PhD is a medical anthropologist whose research has explored barriers to health care for people living with HIV in poverty, homelessness, in jails and prisons, as well as for those being released from correctional facilities. @JAJuvelisPhD)

It’s official: Hlengiwe Mhlambo and her 183 neighbors have a right not to be homeless!

This family lives in what used to be a kitchen

“and Makwerekwere drifting into and out of Hillbrow and Berea having split into Berea from Hillbrow according to many xenophobic South Africans and their glamorising media and into Braamfontein to sort out their refugee affairs and the streets of Hillbrow and Berea and Braamfontein overflowing with Makwerekwere come to pursue green pastures after hearing that the new president Rolihlahla Mandela welcomes guests and visitors unlike his predecessors who erected deadly electric wire fences around the boundaries of South Africa trying to keep out the barbarians from Mozambique Zaïre Nigeria Congo Ivory Coast Zimbabwe Angola Zambia from all over Africa fleeing their war-torn countries populated with starvation like Ethiopia”                                                                      Phaswane Mpe: Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Last Thursday, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that judges cannot authorize an eviction order that will leave people homeless. Over the past 25 years, South Africa’s highest courts have ruled consistently that the rights of residents, including occupiers, matter. Even with those protections in place, this decision is viewed as groundbreaking and welcome. The case involves 184 people – 47 women, 114 men, 23 children – who have occupied an apartment building in the Berea neighborhood of Johannesburg’s inner city. Hlengiwe Mhlambo is one of the 184. She is forty years old, a mother of two, and an informal trader. For the past 14 years, Hlengiwe Mhlambo has lived in her apartment, eking out a meager living, raising her children, hoping to find, or better create, the once promised green pasture.

Current residents have occupied the building anywhere from four to 26 years. Vusumuzi Dlamini moved in in 1991, and has been living there ever since. Samkelo Myeza moved in in April 2013, and has lived there ever since. For Dlamini, Myeza, Mhlambo and all the residents, things started changining in 2013. A new owner served the residents with an eviction notice. The residents went to a local ward committee member, who said he’d investigate the matter. In September, the case went to court. The ward committee member attended. Four residents, known as appearers, attended. Hlengiwe Mhlambo was one of the four. The owner’s lawyers appeared. The appearers attended to appeal for a postponement. The ward committee member told the court that an agreement had been reached between the owner and the residents, and that residents had agreed to their own eviction. As the Constitutional Court notes, “The applicants were not legally represented.”

Hlengiwe Mhlambo is clear that she did not have the authority to represent the 184 residents and that she, personally, never agreed to be evicted. The main point is that that applicants were not legally represented. They had no lawyers. No one explained their rights. They never fully understood the proceedings. For example, they did not know that the law states that before a judge can issue an eviction order, she or he must consider “all the relevant circumstances, including the rights and needs of the elderly, children, disabled persons and households headed by women.”

South Africa’s Constitutional Court decided that people have a right not to be homeless: “It is a well-established principle that an eviction from one’s home always raises a constitutional issue … The starting point is section 26(3) of the Constitution which provides that `[n]o one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances’. Accordingly, courts seized with eviction matters are enjoined by the Constitution to consider all relevant circumstances …  An order that will give rise to homelessness could not be said to be just and equitable, unless provision had been made to provide for alternative or temporary accommodation … Where there is a risk of homelessness, the local authority must be joined … Courts must be alive to the risk of homelessness and the issue of joining the local authority to discharge any duties it may have … All of this may appear unduly burdensome but it is necessary if one has regard to the fundamental importance that a person’s home has to the realisation of almost all human rights. More importantly, the procedure is constitutionally enshrined and legislatively enacted”

The residents were represented by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, SERI. After the decision, their attorney Nomzando Zono, explained, “This is a momentous decision for millions of poor people across South Africa who live with insecure tenure and inadequate housing. As of today, our courts are forbidden from making eviction orders – even if they have been agreed to – until those under threat of eviction are aware of and able to exercise their rights, and until a Judge can be sure no-one will be left out on the streets.”

In the worldwide political economy of global cities, in which urban real estate is a driving economic force, we are so far from a politics that acknowledges “the fundamental important tht a person’s home has to the realisation of almost all human rights.” Last week, the South African Constitutional Court called on us, all of us, to remember the place of the home. No one can consent to an unfair eviction. No one can consent to homelessness. Homelessness is a violation of our most fundamental human and civil and Constitutional rights, wherever we live. Let’s join with Hlengiwe Mhlambo and make it so.

 

(Photo Credit: Twitter / Candice Nolan)