Chronically overcrowded Bronx Housing Court, where tenants plead their cases against eviction and negligent landlords, is grappling with its own shaky living situation.
A heralded relocation to bigger quarters this year — swapping space with the county’s civil court — has halted short of the finish line, leaving stressed tenants and lawyers split between two buildings a 10-minute walk apart.
The culprit, say court officials: asbestos discovered when crews started poking around the new designated space inside the landmark Bronx County Courthouse on the Grand Concourse at 161st Street.
The process of securing city funding for the work has pushed back completion of the court’s move until late 2020 at the soonest, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration said.
“When we looked at the space that would be vacated, a partial redesign of the actual courtrooms were needed, including expanding or installing jury boxes and adding to audience seating,” said the spokesperson, Lucian Chalfen, in an emailed statement. “In doing so, we encountered the need for significant asbestos abatement, as areas under consideration, including the floor tiles, contain the material.”
The new tab: About $18 million — “a significant increase from initial estimates,” Chalfen added.
Bridging a Half-Mile Gap
The growing delays and dollars are stymieing Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s promise to turn each borough’s Housing Court — “the busiest court in New York City,” in her words — from a chaotic place, where tenants can wait for hours to be heard, into a high-functioning hall of justice.
In 2017, DiFiore appointed a Special Commission on the Future of New York City Housing Court, which the following year urged an immediate full move of Bronx Housing Court to the county courthouse.
THE CITY first reported on the relocation plan in late January, when three trial rooms in the busy court moved a few blocks south to the Depression-era County Courthouse in an effort to alleviate crowding. (Public housing cases in the borough had already been moved there.)
Yet the housing court resource room, legal services providers, and other services remain at the Housing Court building at 1118 Grand Concourse — sending tenants and attorneys ping-ponging between the two facilities.
And though he’s only heard of a few instances in which a person headed to Housing Court ended up in the wrong place since the January move, “there definitely are challenges,” said Justin La Mort, an attorney at Mobilization For Justice.
“For small law firms, whether they’re representing tenants or landlords, or small organizations, I do think having to go to two different buildings can be a challenge because there’s no way for you to be in both places at the same time,” he added. “That said, everybody appreciates that we’re no longer in the elevator banks, because that was a travesty.”
The Special Commission’s latest report on its progress, released in February, revealed the asbestos-driven delays.
In April, the New York City Bar Association released the results of a survey of nearly 200 judges and attorneys who practice in Housing Court. Respondents who work in the Bronx expressed serious concerns about the incomplete move, especially for those with mobility challenges and limited English.
“The current spaces in 851 Grand Concourse — as presently being used — have problems with accessibility and adequate space, so an appropriate buildout is essential to the move being successful,” the Bar Association’s report stated.
Still Awaiting Funding
The Office of Court Administration says it cannot hire an architect to prepare to outfit the new facility until the city Office of Management and Budget approves its request for funding, drawing from capital dollars already in the city budget.
An OMB spokesperson said the office is working with OCA to lay the groundwork for the funds’ release.
“We anticipated that there would be delays in the move,” Bronx Housing Court Supervising Judge Miriam Breier told THE CITY in an email. “However, cases are being tried at 851 [Grand Concourse] every day and that has been a real improvement. So we continue our day to day operations here, and look forward to the big move when it happens.”
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