Housing is a human right, and now, New York tenants have a right to counsel to defend themselves against evictions by unscrupulous or negligent landlords.
In 2014, Right To Counsel legislation was introduced by tenant lawyers, tenant associations and scores of grassroots organizers and activists to give a leg up to low-income tenants facing eviction that they have the right to representation, and that resources are available for them to stand their ground against intimidating landlords and landlord lawyers. In August 2017, this legislation was finally passed, and in the year since, evictions have decreased in the city 20% and has helped to preserve families within their homes and reduce rampant homelessness in a city that sees rents escalating. Tenants must know that no matter their income, their ethnicity, their citizenship status, their neighborhood, they have a right to fight landlord harassment without penalization, and activists are working to spread the message that help is available.
From the era of Robert Moses, NYC has been at the mercy of developers and other powerful, big money institutions collaborating to make affordable housing more difficult to find as working-class people of color are pushed away. Gentrification and displacement are endemic in communities of color who have built these neighborhoods and infused them with the culture that they are known for, with many unable to afford to remain where they are. Because of second-class citizenship that comes with discrimination within this country, many within this population accepted their fate that they could not fight back. 11,000 people are evicted from their homes every year— including the most vulnerable like the elderly, children and those living in public housing— believing that eviction notices are their sealed fates. Before the Right To Counsel legislation, only 1% of tenants had representation in housing court proceedings, severely weakening the chances of those without lawyers to be able to stay in their homes. Landlords and their lawyers go to great lengths to discourage representation and employ tactics— often illegal— to prevent tenants at risk from showing up to court to plead their cases. Loss of housing can lead to loss of child custody and lost jobs from which tenants may never recover from. Without knowing their rights, many of these low-income tenants succumb to the rich and powerful who care none about the preservation of families and community.
With the Right to Counsel legislation, steered in part by Legal Aid Society NYC, tenant lawyers are able to accommodate 90% of those in housing crisis with options to remain in their homes and negotiate more affordable rents with their landlords. While landlords and their representation are powerful, community organizers want tenants in need to know that they have strength in numbers and through banding together for a common, worthwhile cause that will only help the city as a whole. With this power, landlords and housing courts are learning to take tenants seriously and not letting those with the most power dictate destiny. These organizers want residents who need help that calling 311 is their first resource, and that they should also reach out to local community boards and their borough president to appeal their case. From that point, the formation of tenant coalitions and emerging tenant leaders are essential, galvanizing power within the people trying to fight back. This coalition building lets these tenants know they are not alone in their struggles as they strive to help more people in need.
City Councilman Mark Levine of District 7 sits with Legal Aid Society's Judith Goldiner, Bronx City Council leader Vanessa Gibson of District 16, and Flatbush Tenant Coalitions’ Estefania Trujillo in this episode of Represent NYC to talk about the accomplishments in getting this legislation passed, and their efforts for the future to make the law even more encompassing to help a greater number of renting residents near the poverty line at risk for eviction, while making services available for those with language, disabilities, and other barriers.