If You Can Avoid It, Stay Out of the Bronx Housing Court System

Hearings at Bronx Housing Court do not begin until 9:30 a.m., but by 8 a.m. the line to enter often stretches to the corner of McClellan Street and Grand Concourse.

The earliest people tend to be those who have learned the hard way that Bronx Housing Court operates by a set of almost byzantine rules. If a tenant is not prepared with the correct paperwork, or a landlord does not produce documents, their case could drag on for hours, days, weeks — even years.

Harold Linder’s day at the court started at 8:45 a.m. He made his way through the revolving doors and the metal detector, rode the escalator to the third floor and found a seat on a bench directly across from the courtroom, where his hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m.

Mr. Linder, 83, peered through the double doors between him and Part K Room 350. Across from him an elderly woman read the Bible. Down the hall, two people sorted through a pile of paperwork. Mr. Linder was calm; he’s been through this before.

His case is 12 years old.

Residents line up as early as 8 a.m. to attend case hearings at Bronx Housing Court. Lynda M. Gonzalez/NYT Institute

The history between Mr. Linder and Bronx Housing Court is not unique. The Bronx has a population of more than 1.4 million; only Staten Island is less populous. Still, the housing court is the busiest. Often living paycheck to paycheck, Bronx residents enter the system and find themselves in even more desperate situations than before.

In 2007, Mr. Linder’s apartment building transitioned from the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program to the private market. The new landlord claims Mr. Linder signed a lease during this transition. A dozen years later, the original copy of this “ghost lease,” as Mr. Linder contemptuously refers to it, has never been presented in a courtroom.

As the courthouse readied for its opening docket, the third floor was a frenzy of activity. The echoes from security guards calling out the names of different lawyers reached the fifth floor. Toddlers in flimsy strollers cried for their mothers’ attention. Help center staff members paced back and forth searching for clients.

“Law and justice aren’t always the same thing,” Judge Steven Weissman, who has been on the bench for 12 years, said.

Melanie Serrano, 29, is familiar with the injustices in this courthouse. She first encountered the court when she was 20, facing eviction from her boyfriend’s apartment. Initially she was captivated; she had never been in a courtroom. Now, almost a decade later and involved in a far more convoluted case, she dreads every hearing. She described the courthouse as “hectic, dark and boring.”

“You get a lot of negative energy from everybody,” she said.

As a child, Ms. Serrano lived in the basement of a building on 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, where her father worked as a superintendent. She had a sheltered childhood, insulated from her neighbors by her mentally ill father. After her leg was amputated because of cancer, she was home-schooled.

Now living near Van Cortlandt Park, Ms. Serrano is reluctant to move from the apartment where she has lived for several years, because she and her son, Ethan Acevedo, 7, have formed strong relationships with their Bronx neighbors.

“I never had that before,” she said.

As Ethan understands it, if his mother doesn’t go to court “her house will get deleted,” he said.

Melanie Serrano, and her son, Ethan Acevedo, 7, on the steps of their Bronx apartment. Ms. Serrano takes Ethan with her to housing court. Jason J. Armond for The New York Times

Without enough money for child care, Ms. Serrano has had to take Ethan along to court. For him, the trips are an adventure.

“I made it fun for him,” Ms. Serrano said. Since talking is not allowed in the courtrooms, she invented a game that would help him practice his Spanish. Quietly, they would translate the different signs in the courtroom.

Judge Weissman said there used to be a nursery for children in the courthouse, but it was a victim of funding cuts.

Most of the cases handled at Bronx Housing Court are a result of nonpayment of rent, and the causes of that nonpayment are where the complexities reveal themselves. Poor money management skills, sick family members, reduced work hours or landlords’ failing to make repairs, are just a few of the situations Judge Weissman sees in his courtroom.

“The laws are just words,” he explained. “They don’t necessarily take into account the reality of what’s going on in front of you.”

Mr. Linder waited for his attorney, Cindy Brown, to join him in the hallway when his hearing ended. Ms. Brown, Mr. Linder’s attorney for the past year, said it’s not unusual to spend more than an hour in court for a two-minute appearance before the judge. After Mr. Linder, her firm will no longer represent clients at the Bronx Housing Court, she said.

“This is done; I have to go back to White Plains,” she told her client in a rush. She left Mr. Linder muttering to himself.

“I’m going to fight this,” he said. He refuses to lose the apartment he has called home for 53 years.

Mr. Linder’s day ended the way it began — sitting on a bench, clutching his briefcase. After 12 years, he was still looking for answers.