East Village — After biking from his apartment in the East Village to his office in the Financial District on an unseasonably warm spring day recently, Joe Lamport hadn’t even broken a sweat. In fact, despite the piles of half-filled boxes lining his cluttered office and a growing to-do list calling for his attention, he appeared completely relaxed. Those who know him well would say this is typical for Lamport, calm and collected even under pressure.   

But dig deeper, they say, and it’s clear that Lamport's laid-back demeanor belies the passion he brings to his work in tenant education and advocacy. Get him talking about local housing issues for a few minutes and the transformation is obvious: He leans forward, starts waving his arms, and runs through a long list of problems, including the question of right to counsel for tenants in the city's sprawling Housing Court system, tenant blacklists, unfair settlements and more.

While worries about housing affordability have become a dominant concern in the city in recent years, in the city's housing courts the clash between owners and renters has been playing out every day for decades—in busy hearing rooms, noisy hallways and beyond the view of most New Yorkers. For six years, this arena was Lamport's world.

As the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a nonprofit coalition established in 1981, it was his job to draw attention to the system's issues and generate momentum for reform. Now Lamport is moving on—for the immediate future, at least. Just weeks ago, he moved to Ghana in West Africa to start a new position with a development agency. His wife, Kadidja, and two sons will join him soon.

It was a tough decision for Lamport, 38, to leave his current job, where he was able to work on something he cared deeply about with people who inspired and challenged him. Like many small nonprofit organizations, City-Wide has a family feel to it. “When I was leaving, the way I introduced it to the staff was, ‘Kids, mom and dad are getting a divorce,’” he said.

For its part, City-Wide is sorry to see him go. “He was an unexpected gain to the housing community, and he’ll be a big loss,” said executive director Louise Seeley, who worked with Lamport for three years.

Larry Wood, the president of City-Wide’s Board of Directors and family council organizer at Goddard Riverside Community Center, says Lamport excelled in the role. “He always went the extra mile to work with somebody. He was passionate about getting the word out,” Wood said.

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Just days before leaving, Lamport took some time to reflect on the current state of affairs at housing court in New York City and where he thinks the court might be headed. He acknowledges that there have been occasional victories for advocates – such as two city bills that became law in March, one banning tenant harassment by building owners, the other prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income (such as federally funded Section 8 rent subsidies). But overall, he says it’s tough work that can often be discouraging.

“This is an adversarial system,” he said. “There are no friends in housing court, only interests.” He’s lost plenty of fights, and thinks the problems are mostly getting worse. For example, he says tenants have an even more difficult time in court these days as landlords push for tougher settlements. Also, problems in the housing market and the economy as a whole are driving more people – ever more of whom are middle-class – to housing court.

The Housing Part of the Civil Court of the City of New York, as the court is officially known, was created in 1973 as an intended solution to the fragmented way the city had been dealing with housing issues up to that point. Over the past 20 years the court has become one of the busiest of all courts in the nation, averaging about 350,000 filings per year, according to City-Wide, spread across 50 different courts, each with its own judge.

The vast majority of cases are brought by landlords against tenants for nonpayment of rent, while an even higher proportion of cases—up to 95 percent, according to Lamport—settle before a trial. Although this eases the burden on the courts, “A lot of settlements in non-payment cases are really just setting things up to get the client out,” said Lamport. City-Wide therefore collaborates with a number of community groups, legal service providers and elected officials to try to limit the negative outcomes for tenants at housing court.

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This wasn’t exactly the career path that Lamport had in mind when he started at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in the fall of 2001. Journalism was his first passion—he worked for a small-town paper in Ohio for three years after graduating from Michigan State University in the early 1990s—and he figured the Columbia degree would help him to advance in the trade. But in the process of completing a project for a documentary film class, Lamport was introduced to the dynamic and confusing world of housing in New York City.      

The documentary focused on a “crazy slumlord,” as Lamport called him, who owned over 50 buildings in the city and who was notorious for his exploitation of low-income tenants. In the course of completing the project, Lamport spoke not only with the landlord, but also with tenants, housing organizations and elected officials. It all was new, and he found it both fascinating and alarming. “I kept wondering, how can this guy exist? How can someone so notorious continue to be a landlord? He’s been called an ‘unfit landlord’ by the chief of HUD, you know, tenants are crying out for help. Every kind of violation imaginable. It just seemed so unjust, and so wrong.”

After graduating in 2002 he started his job at City-Wide, where by his own admission the learning curve was very steep. To get up to speed, Lamport talked to as many people in the field as he could. Many give him credit for learning quickly. “It didn’t take long for Joe to be talking like he had been doing this for years,” said Carl Peterson, Queens Coordinator for City-Wide, who was among those who mentored Lamport early on. “It’s surprising, knowing Joe now, that he was pretty new to housing issues when he started.”

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Lamport says he enjoys working on housing because it’s something that affects every New Yorker in one way or another, especially low-income residents. “If you go around to City Council members, if you go to their offices—and I would say this without exception now—if you ask their constituent services person, ‘What’s the number one problem that people come to your office asking you about?’ I guarantee you 100 percent of the time, 100 percent now, housing,” he said. But the response to the housing crisis on all sides, he says, is focused too much on creating new affordable housing, while the importance of housing court—where tenants fight to hang on to existing housing that they can afford--is downplayed.

If more people paid attention to housing court, he says, they’d see just how fundamentally unfair it is. According to Lamport, about 90 percent of tenants in housing court are not represented by an attorney, putting them at a huge psychological and information disadvantage from the start. Unlike in criminal court, the city is not required to provide legal representation for defendants in housing court. For Lamport, this is the major dynamic in housing court cases and the issue that all others revolve around. “If I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d almost say that someone’s making it up,” he said. “There’s no way this could happen in America. It’s such an unfair fight.” Tenants who don’t know their rights or don’t understand housing law are often overmatched by landlords and their lawyers, Lamport said. City-Wide has information tables at the housing courts, and legal service providers assist some tenants, but the vast majority of tenants are left to go it alone.

City-Wide is currently urging City Council to pass legislation introduced in November of last year that would establish a right to counsel for low-income seniors facing eviction in housing court, an issue the group has supported for some time. Lamport would eventually like to see this right extended to all tenants in housing court. “If we can pull it off it would be the most important thing this organization has done for tenants, hands down,” he said. “If that happens, that will really send a signal that the housing court could be a fair place.” Thirty-six Council Members have already pledged their support to the bill, said Louise Seeley.

The property owners who are often on the other side of housing court matters have their own interest group, the Rent Stabilization Association. Jack Freund, the organization's executive vice president, declined an invitation to reflect on Lamport's tenure.

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Lamport likes to make it clear that he does have a life outside of housing court. He deals with the frustrations that come from his work on the playing fields of the Upper West Side, where he both plays and coaches soccer. He says one of the things he’ll miss most about the city is the Riverside Premiere League, which hosts informal weekend soccer games where children and parents play together, without referees or uniforms. “It’s the way soccer should be, in my mind. It’s just for the fun of the game, and it’s the best thing,” Lamport said. He hopes to continue playing once his family is settled in Africa.

Lamport had a variety of responsibilities at City-Wide: supervising field staff, facilitating trainings at community organizations and representing the organization at public events. “The nice part about working with Joe is that he’s really easy to work with. There’s no ego there,” said John Raskin, director of organizing for Housing Conservation Coordinators, a nonprofit housing organization in Hell’s Kitchen. He credits Lamport for the work he did in helping to put together the West Side Tenants Conference, an annual event promoting tenant knowledge and organizing.

Lamport says his most basic responsibility, and that of City-Wide as a whole, was to provide clear and easily accessible information for tenants with housing issues. “There’s this huge information black hole, so to speak. And I think that plays right into the hands of landlords,” he said. By the time people ask for help it’s often too late, he said, so his goal was to develop a proactive communications strategy to get the word out, for which his journalism background was useful.

“What came across to me was his clear commitment to informing people about housing and tenants’ rights,” said Department of Housing Preservation and Development spokesman Neil Coleman, who worked with Lamport on various projects over three years' time.

To that end, Lamport wrote a monthly article for Gotham Gazette for several years in which he explored a variety of housing issues facing New Yorkers. More recently, he spearheaded the development of an informational video series for City-Wide, funded through a community media grant from the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. City-Wide has already completed a video on how to get repairs, and a video on the housing court process is in development. Once complete it will be posted to City-Wide’s website, broadcast on public access television and distributed to community organizations throughout the city.

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While a move to Africa may seem extreme to some, for Lamport, who is originally from Michigan, it is actually a return home in a way. He lived and worked in West Africa for about five years between 1996 and 2001, and his wife Kadidja, whom he met while serving in the Peace Corps in Mali, is from the region. The primary motivation for the move is family, as it will allow his wife to spend time with relatives she hasn’t seen in years and allow his children, 4 years old and 19 months old, to live in Africa for a time. “We have two boys and we want them to connect with their African heritage, that’s really important to us,” Lamport said. “I don’t want them to learn about Africa just from books and movies.” He's started a blog which he'll update regularly to document his family's time in Africa.

Lamport will work as a communications coordinator in Accra, Ghana, for Carana Corporation, which contracts with the United States Agency for International Development to operate the West Africa Trade Hub. The goal of the venture is to provide West African businesses the information and resources they need to trade with the world, while trying to help outsiders learn more about those businesses and how they can get involved as investors. For example, the project has already helped to link up groups of artisans in West Africa with the Macy’s department store chain, which now places bulk orders with the group, Lamport said.

After completing his two-year contract with Carana, Lamport expects to return both to New York City —“This is where our home is”—and housing work—“It’s a fight that will never end, in a way.” He’s also got some extra motivation to return sooner rather than later, since he can only sublet his apartment for two years. After all, he wouldn’t want to end up in housing court himself.

- Tram Whitehurst

Correction: Due to an editing error in the e-mail City Limits Weekly version of this story, Joe Lamport was incorrectly identified as an attorney. He is not an attorney. 5/12/08