Courthouse program offers a helping hand to tenants in trouble
On many weekday mornings, the line outside the Bronx Housing Court at 1118 Grand Concourse stretches around the block. Many of those who wait will find themselves and their families on the street.
Each year, as the weather turns colder, the city’s homeless shelters swell with residents seeking refuge.
A substantial number of the 75,514 families hauled into Housing Court by landlords and evicted for failing to pay their rent come from Mott Haven and Melrose, according to court officials
“The judges were frustrated because they were seeing so many people coming in with these problems—not being able to pay rent and facing eviction,” said Carmine Rivetti of the United Way of New York, a nonprofit that provides community based social services.
The problem was crucial enough for officials to launch a pilot program four years ago to help residents from the 10451 zip code, which includes much of Melrose.
Most of the residents who find themselves in court have little knowledge of the system or where to turn for help, said Ellen Howard-Cooper of the city’s Department of Homeless Services. So the Department launched the Homeless Help program in partnership with the Housing Court, Legal Aid and the United Way.
“There have been studies that show 70 percent of families don’t seek assistance,” when facing eviction, said Howard-Cooper, who oversees the program.
With an office located right in the Bronx housing court building, Housing Help is like one-stop shopping, she said. The program tries to deal with the underlying issue that led to an eviction notice—loss of a job, loss of a subsidy, mental health problems or domestic violence.
“You’re not just going to have a lawyer,” said Judge Jaya Mahavan, who presides over all of the program’s cases. “The idea is to prevent people from having to come back.”
The program boasts a stellar success rate. Ninety-eight percent of the 1,630 families who have used the service since it began in 2005 have remained out of the shelter system. Housing Help either kept them from being evicted or placed them in stable housing elsewhere.
In addition to providing legal services, the court program also matches the families up with local organizations, like BronxWorks (the new name for the Citizens Advice Bureau), which runs its own eviction prevention program. They help residents apply for a state subsidy that helps pay the rent for families with at least one child, who are on public assistance and are facing eviction.
BronxWorks program director Stacha Johnson said the demand for eviction help has grown tremendously over the last few years. The failing economy and cuts to federal housing programs such as Section 8 vouchers have left more families struggling.
“Previously, it was a lot of people who needed one-time help,” Johnson said. “It’s been difficult for families who’ve become unemployed.” Unemployment insurance doesn’t provide enough to pay the rent, she said.
The Department of Homeless Services is hoping to use the success of the Homes Help pilot program to influence policy throughout the city. The program has already been expanded to two other zip codes in Queens and Brooklyn.
The need is there, Judge Madhavan said. His courtroom has been flooded with more cases than ever.
Despite a series of belt-tightening budget cuts as tax revenues declines because of the recession, Madhavan insists there are no plans to end the service anytime soon.
“To the extent that we have the money were going to keep this going,” he said. “We have been swamped with numbers of people that we’ve never seen before, but the program continues.”