For the past seven months, 40-year-old Maricela Catalán has been pleading her case against her former landlord in Bronx Housing Court from her current living room.
She has tuned in online 10 times via Microsoft Teams with a hotspot and laptop lent by a tenant organizer to press a claim that landlord Sam Applegrad illegally locked her out of her prior apartment in Mott Haven last year.
The city’s housing courts have largely shut in-person operations during the pandemic — freezing eviction proceedings entirely until earlier this year and moving urgent cases concerning building conditions almost wholly online.
Like more than one in three Bronx residents, Catalán does not have access to broadband at home.
Some tenants fighting their landlords during remote court have come to depend on grassroots organizations and legal services groups to borrow tools to help them participate in their hearings. Some organizers have even rallied supporters around screens for “stoop court” to cheer on tenants.
But more than a year after Housing Court went virtual, the Office of Court Administration has no plan in place to safely reopen court for in-person hearings, or a date set for reopening. Only a limited number of tenants who lack legal representation or internet access are eligible for an in-person hearing, according to a court spokesperson.
Much like students in remote school classes, many tenants find barriers to a full hearing once they get their day in virtual court.
The court has provided a Spanish-language interpreter for Catalán, who is from Mexico. But her preferred language is Tlapanec, an indigenous Mexican tongue spoken by roughly 150,000 people, most of whom live in her native state of Guerrero.
On a Monday afternoon in mid-March, one hour into the first day of a grueling cross- examination, Catalán broke down and cried in frustration over the hearing’s format and the interpretation.
The judge called a five-minute recess.
“This is too hard,” she said in Spanish as Aldo Resendiz, an organizer with the South Bronx Tenants Movement, comforted her. Her daughters, ages 3 and 10, played quietly in her bedroom next door.
“It’s too hard to follow what’s going on, I get too nervous about saying the wrong thing,” she said tearfully.
Wait and See
While nearly all evictions have been on hold since March 2020, Housing Court has been open for emergency cases like Catalán’s throughout the pandemic. Landlords have been able to file new cases for eviction since last fall. The newest protection, which prevents the cases from moving through the courts, expires in May.
As of April 6, landlords had 72,937 pending nonpayment claims against tenants in The Bronx, according to Lucien Chalfen, a state Office of Court Administration spokesperson.
By contrast, 273 tenants brought harassment claims against landlords in 2020. Many or most of those cases are now resolved, he said.
“Most but not all” clients have been pleading their cases virtually, Chalfen said.
“As we have seen over this past year, a virus is not predictable. We have previously and continue to remain flexible and responsible in expanding courthouse traffic and in-person appearances as health metrics dictate,” he added.
In-person hearings are reserved for tenants who do not qualify for a free attorney provided by the city Human Resources Administration “and/or for someone who is not able to access virtual technology” and get online for a virtual hearing, Chalfen said.
Pressed on what thresholds the agency has set for reopening Housing Court in-person for all tenants, Chalfen said that the courts office is looking at “how quickly the virus abates.”
New York Tenants Are Organizing Against Evictions, as They Did in the Great Depression | Retro Report
Anticipating a massive wave of evictions when the federal and state bans are lifted in January, housing activists in The Bronx are taking action. They’re pushing to extend the eviction ban until the pandemic is over, organizing tenants, and seeking rent relief. Housing activism in the Bronx has a deep history dating back to the Great Depression, when neighbors banded together to resist landlords’ efforts to displace them. That struggle helped highlight issues and inform policies around affordable housing that continue to this day.
New York State Court Officers Association President Dennis Quirk said that it’ll likely take a “combination of vaccines, lower positivity rates, and additional resources for the court system” to get in-person hearings up and running to pre-pandemic levels.
He noted that the vast majority of his union’s members have worked in person throughout the crisis.
“The courthouses of New York City are not perfect even in the best of circumstances, even before COVID-19,” he said. “There is no proper cleaning in any court building. There is no proper ventilation in any building in New York City.”
More than 300 of the union’s 1,500 members have contracted COVID since the lockdown began last year, he said, and four have died.
‘State Should Do More’
Shutting down a majority of in-person court hearings at the start of the pandemic was the correct decision, tenant representatives argue.
They said it kept clients, their legal counsel and court staff safe from potential contagion in the notoriously overcrowded Housing Court buildings, where it is common for hearings to be held in tightly packed hallways due to lack of space.
Jessica Bellinder, supervising attorney with the Bronx Neighborhood Office at The Legal Aid Society, said the state should be doing more to ensure that tenants are able to attend their virtual hearings.
The situation is most dire in The Bronx, where a January 2020 study from the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer found that 38% of residents don’t have home internet — the highest of any borough.
Cost, the study found, is a major barrier. The office and other city agencies are currently seeking proposals to expand affordable broadband access.
“We do believe that courts are a public function — that they should be available to the public and the court system should make efforts to make them publicly available,” Bellinder said.
“They’ve done a pretty good job with the pandemic in terms of getting up and running and doing things virtually and handling a lot of issues,” she added. “But they’ve also known that we have a large population who don’t have access to reliable internet service, such that they could meaningfully participate in a court appearance — and as far as I understand, that hasn’t been addressed.”
Quirk agreed that the state should be doing more to help people get connected to virtual hearings in the meantime. “Especially in the Black and brown community, and even with senior citizens — it’s hard for folks to participate, and the state should do more to help people who are in certain categories of low-income,” he said.
A Virtual Ordeal
In Catalán’s case, remote hearings have meant arranging court dates not just around her daughters’ full-time in-person school schedules, but around the advocates who help her log in to their computers and hotspots.
Her daughters still attend a school a block away from her former building — roughly 40 minutes away, via bus and train, from her current apartment.
Catalán said the school provided her with a prepaid MetroCard. Both she and her husband — day laborers who work cleaning homes and in the food service industry, respectively — have been mostly unemployed since the pandemic began last March.
When Catalán logs in to her virtual hearings, she has to contend with the virtual format and with the difficulties of participating with the help of an interpreter, who translates every exchange to Spanish, her second language.
Stephanie Storke of TakeRoot Justice, Catalán’s attorney, said that participating in court via an interpreter is often cumbersome even for in-person settings, but that virtual hearings can make it worse.
During Catalán’s first cross-examination, Storke’s own Internet service kept giving out, “and there was no way for me to say like, ‘Hey, stop, I can’t hear you,’ or ‘my Internet’s frozen.’”
“And then having to deal with consecutive interpretation — I think it’s difficult to do that in person, and it’s impossible to do that in a virtual trial,” she said.
Catalán is being supported by the South Bronx Tenant Movement, a mostly volunteer-led organization that helps low-income tenants organize their residential buildings in the area.
The group was organizing the tenants in Catalán’s former building, 387 E 138th St. in Mott Haven, when she alleges she was forced out on May 9. The group connected her with attorneys at TakeRoot Justice, who are representing her case in Housing Court.
In her first cross-examination on March 22, Catalán testified that her landlord began pressuring her family to leave last April, telling her that she had to leave the apartment she’d lived in for four years because he wanted to do renovations, she explained.
When she objected — Catalán said she was sick with COVID at the time — Applegrad and the building supervisor harassed her, she testified on March 17.
In an interview with THE CITY prior to her cross-examination as well as in court, Catalán said that the building supervisor said that if she and her family did not leave the East 138th Street apartment “the nice way, the marshals would come and close the apartment” — and she and her daughters would be out on the street, at which point “the city” would take the kids away.
Catalán — who does not read or write in Spanish or English — testified that she was forced to sign a lease one month later, in May 2020, for an apartment owned by the same landlord on Allerton Avenue.
Neither Applegrad nor the building supervisor had shown her husband or her the new apartment before they moved in, she said. In fact, the address on the lease is a different one from the apartment she was placed in, she said during her testimony.
Applegrad’s attorney declined to respond to THE CITY’s request for comment, noting that the case is ongoing.
Stroke argues that Catalán was “involuntarily moved from her apartment” and is seeking to return to her former residence.
Catalán and several of her former neighbors staged a protest in front of Applegrad’s Midwood, Brooklyn, home last month to call attention to her housing court battle and the building’s numerous housing code violations.
“I only care about my daughters,” Catalán said in her testimony. “They need to be close to school, to their community, that’s all I care about.”