Pro Se:

What it feels like to represent yourself in
NYC Housing Court

Angela Pham
Dec 29, 2014 · 6 min read

I received mine in early February 2014, the paperwork that would kick off months of Google searches, knowledge of Latin like pro se, and many working-day hours spent in the courthouse security line.

But as many before me have found, Googling only goes so far when you are trying to defend your home from a landlord determined to remove you, and their attorney, who is paid to serenely spend his days in court — his second home.

I am not a lawyer, nor am I offering legal advice. But I want to share my experience and emotionally prepare those who are performing the same desperate search for “what it’s like to represent yourself in NYC housing court” and looking for something honest they can relate to.

I can relate to you.

As tenant-friendly as the city may be,
Housing Court is not tenant-friendly.

I do not know what percentage of NYC Housing Court cases ultimately rule in the tenant’s favor. If you’d base your evidence on anecdotes, it’d seem that landlords have the disadvantage — everyone speaks of how tenants can get away with almost anything in this city, especially in court.

Because my case was dismissed on the basis of the landlord’s attorney admitting a big error, I never received a decision from the judge. But I can assure you that nothing about this courthouse feels tenant-friendly.

You will watch as families of five crowd into the courtroom (it’s called the Housing Part) and, speaking no English, stare in rapt wonder as the white, middle-aged attorney of the landlord points at his paperwork with dwindling patience. His weary speech emphasizes what they did wrong, why they are here, what they need to do next. The words land emptily.

You will think back to the previous hour, when that same attorney cracked jokes with the clerks in the courtroom. He greeted them cheerfully, “Good morning, Claudia!” as he sauntered up and grabbed files you didn’t know you were allowed to touch.

Over the months, you recognize each white, male attorney, if not for their faces and their well-pressed suits, then for their ease in riding up to the 5th floor and confidently smacking down their portfolios onto the bench.

You will hear many requests in your long mornings for Hindi translators, Cantonese translators, Spanish translators, for all the tenants who would otherwise have to know a lot of English and a little bit of Latin to understand what is happening in this room, why they are being asked to leave their homes.

You, natively fluent in English, will see a sign that says “TO JOIN LINE, MOVE TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE” and still never understand how that works.

You will wait in a different line for free legal advice with dozens of others — what a treat, a privilege, an honor. After an hour, you wrinkle your brow in confusion as the clerk wordlessly tapes up a flier that asks you to come back in two hours.

You will come back in two hours with everyone, see no sign of life behind that desk, then watch as the free legal advice window closes for the day.

There is no one to vent to but yourself and the others in line, who usually can rant in only their native tongue.

You will ask many clerks for help, thinking that it is their job to help. You learn quickly that asking for clarification is the wrong move, even when your English is clear and your legal knowledge sound and you’re dressed the way the attorneys do: clean khakis, tidy hair, a blazer.

You try being polite, with distinct please-and-thank-yous, but these employees are always on edge with you. Questions grate them, cause them to snap.

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” one muttered at me.

None of them will remember you.

No matter how many times you come in and sit up straight in front of them, hoping they will respect you for the amount of time you’ve taken off work to be here and represent yourself, quietly and obediently, even though your opponent’s attorney has never shown once.

They will ask each time, “Are you the attorney?” because you are dressed like one. That is the most respectful thing they will ever say to you.

You can’t blame them, though, because most people cannot dress well for court. They cannot take off work for court and change for court and buy a court outfit and drop off their baby before court.

The ones who don’t have sweat on their brow or a child in their lap or shaky hands on crumpled papers or colored skin are nearly always the attorneys or the landlords.

You are lucky, to be half white, educated, with an understanding boss and flexible working hours. You do not have children or debt or anything more than a 5-minute walking commute to this place.

You have it easy, even as this feels so hard.

So you did not bend to the pressure of dozens of people who told you that you need to pay a lawyer, or that you should just give up and leave your home.

These tenants didn’t, either. But they probably didn’t have much choice, like you did.

“Get control of your kid,” growled one attorney to a tenant waiting for her turn in court, a toddler in tow.

One woman said, “I haven’t slept in a month because of this,” shaking her head.

One said, “Is there anyone here who can help me?” in a voice so dim it sounded close to death, and with the hunched posture of someone equally close to it.

Most were well above retirement age. Many were living in rent-regulated apartments, like me, under laws that are intended to protect us.

Another said, “They’re kicking me out after my mother died. They said she’s the one on the lease, so I can’t live there. She is dead — how can she be the only one on the lease?”

One man waiting in line behind me shouted, bitterly, “I got all dressed up for this today, and they just told me to come back next week. Come back next week!”

He wore a suit and tie and held a big stack of loose papers in his hard grip, and he too had to just go home with nothing new to report to his family. Nothing different from when he walked in that morning.

You’ll cry, many times.

You will cry because, at first, your lawyer acquaintances will tell you it sounds like a hopeless case.

You will cry out of joy when you realize you actually have a real case.

You will cry out of gratitude when a law student and a real lawyer help you do the research needed to support your case, for free.

You will want to pray, because few others have this privileged of a network.

You’ll stifle your tears when you do all the paperwork right and the court hours suddenly changed and you’re too late to deliver your carefully composed papers in time. When their website told you something different.

When PETA decides to set up a protest in front of the security line with a mock dead carriage horse, signs and voices screaming “JUSTICE FOR DAISY” and you just want justice for yourself, your home.

When someone in the jury duty line recognizes you from work, and you feel ashamed you’re here for something not normal. When a clerk decides to help you in a rare moment of empathy, then you hear her boss shortly after scolding her for wasting her time.

When a clerk asks you if you want to “adjourn” or “dismiss,” and you have to make the decision, alone, in seconds.

When the judge asks you for a new court date, and you fumble in your calendar app for your schedule, while she heaves a labored sigh.

Your victories will be small.

You know which floor to take the elevator to.

You know to bring a book, since phones are frowned upon.

You know you can read through many chapters, because each court date takes many hours of your morning.

Your phone’s on silent.

You knew to ask for the “affidavit” with authority. You pronounced it right, this time.

The fact that you knew you had the right to ask for the affidavit.

In the end, you may win.

It will feel like a weak victory, all things considered, because the landlord can raise it again whenever they want. Without prejudice, as they say.

In a way, you’re just waiting again, checking your mailbox and letting your stomach drop every time the envelope looks cryptic on the outside.

But you still have a job, and hundreds in the bank, and a home.

Many of the others lost everything. And few in their lives could tell them why.

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