by Christopher Bacas
In the Municipal building on Livingston Street, two floors are reserved for Housing cases. In each court, dozens of people work and wait, a Bosch tableau with an international cast. HPD lawyers work the perimeter. They bring Respondents to the bench, confer with them in the hallway and negotiate with Petitioners on their behalf. HPD attorneys also lunch with landlord’s counsel. There is little ethical or proximate difference between Officers of the Court, save who signs their checks and the pay scales. To a person, they distribute a crushing weight, balancing malfeasance and negligence, plunder and systemic rot. The lasting effect of a day in Housing court isn’t the stipulation Management makes for repairs, nor the tenant’s payment (sometimes, less an abatement), it is feeling that force haul you down and watching others already borne off by it.
We arrived by scuffling shoes and creaking doors, then slid into crowded pews, all the grim mugs on a subway car faced in the same direction. The docket was packed; twenty or more cases in a six-hour work day. Some would resolve in a few minutes, others stretch to an hour or more. The judge cuts off ramblers and ranters. While you wait, you rehearse your statement.
The electrical system in our building was nearly 90 years old. Its central node, a rectangular graphite board the size of a medicine cabinet. Protruding from it, six paired brass claws held six shotgun shell 60-amp fuses, no covering nor shielding. To replace fuses, small plastic pliers hung on a hook nearby. Current flowed to smaller boxes with smaller fuses in each unit’s kitchen. Air conditioners, particularly older models, can continuously pull 20-30 amps. Entertainment and communications: flickering modems, cable boxes, charging stations and flat-screens add to the load. Multiply by twenty-five units…
Summertime: once enough folks started their appliances, the power cutoff. If it was night, passing cars traced careening lights on the walls. Refrigerator hum gone, we sat in the stillness, every twitch raising our temperatures. We’d jack up all the windows, or carry chairs out to the sidewalk.
Super couldn’t keep up with our calls. Accustomed to plenty of tenant hostility, he rarely picked up, anyway. My strategy: go outside, down the steps to his basement unit, then tap lightly and steadily on his metal door (he’d disabled the bell). If he was home, he could speak to me through the door. If he wasn’t, I knew the outage was going to be a long one.
Once, when the super was visiting family in Trinidad, his girlfriend answered my tap, tap, tapping. Solemnly, she showed me the graphite board and box where dead fuses piled like spent shells. Then, pantomiming the steps to remove and replace each fuse, widened her eyes and said in a fierce whisper: “Be careful! It’s hot! It could kill you!” Finally, she took cover by the door.
It took a hard pull to free the fuse. I dropped it, missing the dud box. There was a single fresh one. It would take much more leverage to fully set between the brass arms. I gripped it with pliers, leaned close, bent my elbow and pushed until it slotted. Twin geysers of sparks shot out.
“BE CAREFUL” She hissed.
We headed to a 24-hour hardware store in Manhattan for two cases of fuses. I understood why the super’s lady didn’t want get involved in the electrical wars. Replacing fuses was scary and ultimately ineffective. The super’s unit had its own breaker to protect the boilers and switching boxes. Once tenants understood outages never affected them, they got super pissed. When our lights went out, she sat alone, tv muted, and waited.
Months before, a helpful 311 operator connected us to NYC Buildings Department. We requested an inspection for the electrical system. Shortly after, a thick sheaf of paper, interleaved with carbons, appeared on the building door. I carefully photographed the document, then read and re-read its contents. The checked boxes showed their inspector couldn’t gain entry and gave our property owner/manager ten days to provide access. Any findings were subject to Housing Law (relevant citations included) and sub-sections listed numerous procedures and penalties.
The papers were gone in hours. Weeks passed. We called buildings and spoke with a grim employee. He read the report: inspector couldn’t get access, management didn’t return calls, ten day period passed, case closed. This was standard procedure for Buildings. Their department usually doesn’t deal with tenant complaints. Mr Lugubrious recommended we call HPD.
In the courtroom, we waited for that electric case. Court officers stood as the Bailiff announced our judge. He was a short Italian guy with a middle-school principal demeanor: the lightest crust of compassion over a dense filling of impatience. Housing Court judges have broad powers. They are a family court, a finance division, a mental-health clinic, an multi-limbed arbitrator and a gateway to homelessness. Their Sinai tablet is the “Warranty of Habitability”. A valid tenant argument must reference that statute.
When Petitioner’s lawyer arrived, we joined him at the bench. Management retained Stuart Jacobs as counsel. Their greed and incompetence ensured Jacobs reported to Livingston st every day. Jacobs elevated mendacity to match his boss’ avarice. Once, in our lobby, the lawyer presented a report from a licensed electrician. The tradesman had inspected our building and found the electrical system in good repair and adequate for the building’s needs. We tracked the license to a building in Boro Park. In its’ cruciferous lobby, rivers of old mail tumbled from a row of jimmied mailboxes. No shingle and no mailbox for their tradesman.
Now, our judge squinted at our complaints.
“Respondent claims the electricity goes out every day”
He looked at us.
“Yes, Your Honor. Sometimes more than once a day.”
“You know MY electricity goes out sometimes”
“No. Not everyday. But in the summer….”
“You gotta expect some problems.”
“This is a daily occurrence, your Honor. We…”
Jacobs broke in
“Judge, They constantly complain about every little thing. These tenants want a Park Avenue apartment. My client can’t provide that. We are working with them on this issue.”
Jacobs turned to us.
“I believe it’s gotten better, hasn’t it?”
“Not at all. It’s worse. We even have to go change burnt out fuses ourselves!”
Beth produced the receipt for the 60-amp fuses.
“Why are you showing me this?”
“The fuses your Honor.”
“That proves nothing” Jacobs said, throwing his hands up.
“It proves that the system is so old, it doesn’t even have breakers”
“Some buildings have old systems. They might need to upgrade at some point. The fuses don’t automatically mean it’s bad.”
“My client had the property inspected. This report is…”
“That report is fake. The company is fake. It’s not a real mailing address. We went to the…”
Judge turned to us and laid his hands flat.
“Are you saying Mr Jacobs is lying?”
“Yes” We said, in unison.
“Mr Jacobs is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for thirty years. He wouldn’t lie.”
Malfeasance and negligence. Plunder and systemic rot.