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.
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.
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.”
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.