Joyce Overton went to court one morning in November to ask for help. With her hair tied back in a bun and the word “love” scrawled across her shirt, Overton stepped up to the judge’s bench to explain that, for weeks, she had to feed her seven kids without a stove.
It was just the latest in a series of issues with her public housing unit in Red Hook, Brooklyn, from faulty pipes, to rodent infestations, to broken electrical outlets. Over the summer, she had to live in a hotel while her building managers treated her bathroom for traces of lead. This time, she was given a hot plate, she said, but no one had come to fix the stove—and it took hours for her to boil one pot of water.
Judge Alex Calabrese, who has been overseeing housing court at the Red Hook Community Justice Center since it began in 2000, asked Overton clarifying questions and scribbled down notes in her file. After recording the issues she reported, he came to a decision.
To make sure the issue was addressed, Calabrese said he would inspect her home himself.
And sure enough, when the court broke for lunch, Calabrese, an attorney, and two court officers set out on foot from the courthouse toward Overton’s apartment.
This is not what justice typically looks like in New York City’s housing courts. But it could, if the court system chose to expand the Red Hook Community Justice Center’s model.
The vast majority of people who step into housing court in New York are low income tenants facing eviction. Only a fraction of the system’s cases deal with landlords neglecting repairs, because so few tenants have the resources to sue. It’s been that way since the city’s housing court began 50 years ago, despite its mission to improve New York’s housing conditions and ensure that resident’s homes are well maintained.
In 2020, New York became the first city to give tenants the right to an attorney. But many housing advocates say that there are not enough lawyers to go around, so low income tenants often face their cases alone.
Judges, overwhelmed by the day’s crowded docket, usually don’t have time to ask more than a few questions before signing off on an agreement drafted by the landlord’s attorney.
“The process is completely disempowering,” Pablo Estupiñan, a housing rights activist with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, said.“It feels like everyone is against you.”
But in Red Hook, housing justice looks vastly different.
In 2019, 34 percent of cases at the Red Hook Community Justice Center were brought by tenants to address maintenance issues, compared with only seven percent in Brooklyn’s wider housing court system, according to court statistics compiled by the Justice Center. And, in that entire year, the number of tenants evicted from Red Hook Houses—the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn, which makes up the jurisdiction of Justice Center’s housing court—totalled just two.
“We’re addressing the root causes of what drives people to court,” Ross Joy, the director of the court’s Housing Resource Center, said.
The Housing Resource Center works with the court to prevent common causes of eviction by helping tenants find employment, apply for rental assistance, or seek care from a range of social services provided by the Justice Center.
Whatever challenges a tenant faces, they can call the Resource Center for help.
“Just like you would call your neighbor if you had an issue,” Joy said.
According to Judge Calabrese, their court’s priority is to keep tenants in their homes. Evictions will be paused until an appropriate solution is found.
“Tenants have to actively work to be evicted for non-payment,” Calabrese said. “We will do anything and everything we can.”
On this particular Wednesday, as the court staff walked out of the Justice Center toward Overton’s apartment, almost everyone that they passed called out to greet Calabrese. He is a familiar presence in the neighborhood.
A gray haired man wearing a bright blue cap walked slowly with his cane through Coffey Park, stopping when he saw the judge to catch up, like old friends.
This is more than just neighborliness. It embodies what the Red Hook Community Justice Center has sought to accomplish since its founding. By actively responding to local concerns, rather than simply enforcing the law, the court tries to use the collective knowledge of the community to address issues affecting the area and create a shared sense of what justice should look like.
The Justice Center regularly meets with community leaders to hear proposals for how they can address the challenges facing the neighborhood. And the court’s staff routinely adapt their procedures to meet the changing needs people bring with them to court.
According to Ross Joy, tenants said there were not enough staff members at Red Hook Houses to help them with the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) complex lease renewal process, which decides how much aid they will receive, so members of the Housing Resource Center collaborated with NYCHA to assist them. Now over a hundred tenants a month come to them for help with leases.
For residents at NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses, justice usually means repairs.
Tenants regularly show the staff at the Justice Center photos of black mold that blankets their ceilings, or water that swells behind their walls due to chronic leaks throughout the complex’s aging pipe system. Problems with the trash chutes have led to rampant infestations. And residents will frequently say that they have no access to a stove or a refrigerator. Sometimes they have had to go without gas or water.
NYCHA has been cited with 801 code violations by the Justice Center in this year alone, according to court records, and the majority of cases brought by tenants were considered hazardous.
As the court staff stepped inside Overton’s building, a faint odor of mold and trash drifted through the air. They passed paintings and posters the residents hung outside their doors to brighten the dim hallways. NYCHA’s building managers joined for the inspection.
NYCHA has been chronically underfunded, which makes it difficult to address the major structural damages throughout the system’s aging infrastructure. But, it provides the largest supply of public housing anywhere in the country to a city with the nation’s highest cost of living, ensuring its residents have a chance to stay in their homes.
Calabrese says that the NYCHA workers they partner with “are trying their best in a difficult, dysfunctional system.”
“They want to be able to schedule repairs,” Calabrese says, explaining that his visits help the building’s staff to alert their superiors to a particular tenant’s concerns.
When the judge, an attorney, two court officers, and the landlord’s inspectors knocked on Overton’s door, everyone seemed at ease, familiar with the routine. Calabrese looked more like a maintenance worker than a judge pacing through the rooms, asking about the pipes and door fixtures. The only indication of his stature was his suit and patent leather shoes. While he worked, the court officers played with Overton’s children, who stared up wide-eyed at the officials crowded in their living room.
Calabrese discovered that the stove Overton requested had been delivered shortly before they arrived, “which is amazing” he said, praising NYCHA’s quick turnaround. He took the opportunity to note any other needed repairs and told Overton that he would return the next day to make sure the stove had been installed.
This kind of attentiveness might sound impractical when considering the size of New York’s housing court system. But Colleen Shanahan, a law professor at Columbia University who has studied courts throughout the country, said that Red Hook’s model is entirely scalable.
At its core, Shanahan says, the Justice Center is simply empowering its staff to observe the underlying problems in the community and giving them the freedom to address the issues of greatest concern. Its small size allows it to pay close attention to people’s needs, but that size could be replicated through the broader use of community courts if the city chose to make that a priority.
“Working closely with communities,” Shanahan said, empowers the court “to address the problems in everyday people’s lives,” showing the simple truth that “mutual investment leads to mutual empowerment.”
As the Justice Center’s staff filed out of the building, Calabrese overheard a young man in a wheelchair telling someone that he had been without a refrigerator for weeks. Before the judge could turn around, another staff member, Marissa Williams, told him that she was already on it. The man was coming by the Justice Center the next day for help.
About the author(s)
Nate Rosenfield is a former teacher and a Stabile Investigative Fellow at Columbia Journalism School.