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Friday, Apr. 28, 2006
p. 16, col. 2

Legal Team Tackles Homelessness
Through Civil Court Initiative

By Thomas Adcock

First, the judge had to launch the innovative notion of involving the courts in the biggest problem haunting the most vulnerable New Yorkers - homelessness.

She then had to find two idealistic lawyers to run a pair of unique programs addressing the big issue. And when she did, she had only one office to accommodate them.

"Anyhow, it's all in the people you choose," said Judge Fern Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge of the New York City Civil Court whose initiatives in aiding people with housing problems and related difficulties began in 1997. "That's where it took genius, if you will, on my part. It's only recently that we've really taken off with much more energy."

Chosen within the past 18 months as energetic office mates were Lisa M. Courtney, who supervises the Housing Court Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Denise Colon-Greenaway, who runs the Housing Court's guardian ad litem program for physically or mentally impaired litigants facing eviction.

"The stress of losing your place of residence has got to be one of the most frightening things one would experience," said Ms. Colon-Greenaway, who earned a master's degree in social work at Columbia University and a J.D. at Rutgers School of Law. "On top of that, you're impaired. You're doing the best you can, and yet you may fall short. It's intimidating."

Ms. Courtney, a graduate of Columbia Law School, said there is a "desperate need" for sympathetic attorneys.

According to a 2004 report by the Department of Homeless Services, homelessness in the city was at its highest level since the Great Depression. Since then, the situation has improved, according to departmental counts, with survey results reported earlier this week showing an estimated homeless population of 3,843 - a 13 percent reduction from last year's count.

Ninety percent of the caseload in Housing Court, said Ms. Courtney, involves non-payment of rent, often due to family illness or job loss. Equally "sad," she said, are cases of small landlords who face forfeiture of their homes to mortgage companies when a roomer fails to pay rent.

Ms. Courtney's string of 70 pro bono lawyers counsel both tenants and small, financially strapped landlords with informational sessions to assist litigants in preparing forms for pro se hearings or mediation sessions.

"We're dealing mostly with [clients] shuffled around from one agency to another, with people telling them what they can't do," said Ms. Courtney. "All of a sudden, here they have a lawyer telling them, 'Here's what you can do."'

Judge Fisher credits Ms. Courtney with persuading lawyers from prominent firms - "all the biggies," as she put it - to volunteer assistance to Housing Court for the first time.

Ms. Courtney operates periodic training sessions for lawyers unfamiliar with landlord-tenant law. Attorneys like she was herself - "I never heard of a holdover proceeding" - as a former associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

As for Ms. Colon-Greenaway's studies in social work, Judge Fisher said, "I've always thought Housing Court law and social work go hand in hand. Denise has attracted more qualified guardians. She and Lisa talk . . . share strategy on recruiting - getting people to understand that Housing Court is important, protecting people's homes is important. The city's future is tied to housing."

Both Judge Fisher's appointees find enormous satisfaction in their work.

"I'm able to advocate for people in crisis, people unable to advocate for themselves, people who need someone to shed clarity," said Ms. Colon-Greenaway. "It's fulfilling to have made a difference. It's not something small to help someone keep an apartment."

Added Ms. Courtney: "I love my job. How many lawyers can say that?"


Reprinted with permission from the "ISSUE DATE" edition of The New York Law Journal (c) 2006 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.