Right to Counsel Hearing at City Hall

On Monday, September 26, 2016, over 300 hundred people came to City Hall to rally on the steps to demand passage of Right to Counsel, which would guarantee legal representation in housing court for low income New Yorkers. This day was historic. City Hall security was forced to close access to City Hall because of the size of the crowd.  Following the rally was a marathon of testimonies that included 80 individuals and lasted just over six hours. Out of the 80 people that testified none were against the bill. In fact, Chief Justice  Jonathon Lippman, Court of Appeals (New York State’s highest court) testified in support of the bill.   The bill is sponsored by 43 Council Members and the Public Advocate and would make New York City the first city in the nation to provide legal representation in housing court.

Here are some of our testimonies

September 26, 2016

TESTIMONY BEFORE THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL RE: INTRO 214-A

Harold DeRienzo, President

I am here today as a not-for-profit landlord who is responsible for over 1,200 of housing in 46 buildings in the Bronx.  Only one of these buildings has project-based rental subsidies, most have private mortgage debt that must be paid every month, most have homeless unit set-asides written into our regulatory agreements, which govern how our buildings are operated.  Our average rent is about $900 a month.

Our organization supports the passage of the Right to Counsel bill, Intro 214-A.

There are many reasons for this:

1.     It is the right thing to do in the interest of justice.  I think it was Nietzsche who stated that there is no justice except among equals.  This may be acceptable in a society where a person is expected to die in the same social standing to which they were born; in a society where there is no room, or tolerance, for upward mobility; where everyone knows their place and where exploitation is acceptable, as long as it is done to those for whom the law and convention provide no recourse.  But this is a democracy, and our court systems are supposed to provide a level playing field for the administration of justice.  Housing Court is a court of justice, an outcome substantially denied due to the inequality of the litigants. 

2.     It is the right thing to do because the social cost borne by tenants through a system of unequal administration of justice is so much greater than the cost borne by owners.  We try very hard to keep our residents out of court.  Why?  Well, besides the obvious (cost), we do this because we know that our residents are seldom salaried employees.  Just like most of our tenants are continually one paycheck or personal set back away from threatened eviction, just as well, most of our residents are one absence away from loss of employment.  And even those that are not fired, still suffer loss of income due to being hourly employees, which makes their tenancies even more tenuous.  From observation, this sheer reality of circumstance, separate and apart from the intimidation factor of dealing with a difficult system and those who operate within it, forces tenants to “settle” in the halls of housing court rather than wait in court all day for a trial, even if they have a case.

3.     It is the right thing to do because there is need for reforms to be put in place to protect tenants and landlords as well.  There are many abusive owners.  But there are also abusive tenants.  But in good conscience there is no room for discussions of comprehensive reform until there is a level playing field and all tenants have the right to legal representation.

We at Banana Kelly support this legislation and urge its passage.

RueZalia Watkins

TESTIMONY

BEFORE THE

NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

COMMITTEE ON COURTS AND LEGAL SERVICES

Council Chambers – City Hall

New York, NY

 

 Good Morning and thank you for this opportunity to present this testimony before you. My name is RueZalia Watkins and I am a resident of the Bronx.  I am also a member of the Banana Kelly Resident’s Council.

 Unfortunately, I have been a part of eviction processes.  The first day of court, I was given an adjournment.  I remember going to the information desk in the lobby to find out what this process was and how I could get help; I knew nothing.  I was told to go to the computers or, I believe the third floor, where the line was so long that it took an hour plus to get to the person who was answering questions. I hoped to get some kind of understanding and direction.

 I did not get understanding; I was still tumbling in a haze of confusion and fear. I did, however, get direction: “Go to the 4th floor to the Legal Aide/Counsel office”.  When I got to the 4th floor I knocked on the door and there was no answer. When the person came out, I asked if I could speak with her and she informed me that I had to return the next day, because she had already reached her daily quota of 15 people, some of whom were still waiting for her. I had already missed a day of work and now I might miss another tomorrow.

 Fortunately, the next day, I was able to see this person and she was able to confirm that I was entitled to an attorney, but only because of my age.  Had I been served a notice three months earlier, I would not be eligible for counsel.

 I received another appointment to be processed for/with the attorney. I will still plagued with feelings of fear, but my sense of helplessness was easing because I felt someone would be with me to guide me thru this process and to protect me. For me, I had counsel, but for so many there is none.

 The provision of counsel being proposed goes beyond the provision of a lawyer.  It provides understanding, because the lawyer is able to answer questions. Having access to a lawyer helps us to hold onto our jobs, because we do not have to take off from work to get answers to our questions. For those of us with various infirmities, having a lawyer at least lowers our blood pressure, if not preventing more serious medical traumas. And the most important aspect of having access to an attorney is saving our life in our homes and preventing homelessness.

 In developing, inserting and implementing Chapter 4 of Section 1. Title 27 of the administrative code of the city of New York, it is so important to think about the current capacity in our housing courts throughout New York City today, as well as the trials and difficulties facing so many low income New Yorkers.

Aside from emphatically supporting the establishment and implementation of Int. No 214-A, giving low income New Yorkers access to lawyers to assist them in stopping evictions, foreclosures and other processes that would render them homeless, as they stand in court next to landlords properly armed with legal counsel, I put forward the following recommendations:

 §   Given increasing AMI’s, it is crucial that the medical expenses, particularly for the disabled community be considered to determine eligibility for these services, especially in that these expenditures on premiums, medication etc. may have caused the financial difficulty resulting in the need for these processes;

§   It is strongly suggested that 27-4003 be changed to giving the civil justice coordinator authority to –

o    designate more than one organization for the rendering of these legal services, as NYC is too large and diverse for these needs to be met by one organization and such a limited structure could make lines and time frames for accessing these services longer, causing many people to miss work;

o    the plan being developed by the New York city bar association, as well as the identification of eligible organizations should include time frames for both the initial referral/response and provision of legal services;

o    the provision of monitoring by the commissioner of housing, preservation and development, include these timeframes in their establishment of procedures;

§   It is my hope that access to partnerships with social service providers, technology and “innovative approaches” will never be provided in place of legal counsel but in addition to it.

I thank you for considering these suggestions and remain so grateful for your broader action today, namely, ensuring legal access for thousands of New Yorkers who are trying to avoid harassment and in too many cases, homelessness.

ELVIS SANTANA

 Hello my name is Elvis Santana and I’m a member of the Banana Kelly Residents Council.  I am here today to speak in support of the passage of 214-A, Right to Counsel.


I would like to explain, why I, personally feel the passage of this bill will benefit me and my community.

Unfortunately my mother was forced to appear in court due to false allegations that we were behind on rent two months ago.  Because my mother doesn’t speak fluent English, my brother accompanied her to translate.  Immediately after my brother said two sentences in Spanish, the judge asked “Do you speak Spanish Fluently?”  My brother replied saying “Yes. That is why I’m here with my mother.” Without hesitation, the judge ruled to reschedule and said “Next time bring someone who does speak Spanish”.  Councilmembers, everyone in my family speaks fluent Spanish and if you like I can explain everything to you in Spanish as proof.  However that is not why I’m here.

I’m here because there are thousands of family who suffer from what my mother suffered and that is being treated unfairly on court simply because we’re not given the right to counsel when we’re being financially crippled or misunderstood by the landlords or like my mother, in the court of the law.  Since then, my mother repeatedly had to miss work (without pay) in attempts to yet again prove against the landlord’s claims that she paid her rent.

It’s been reported on average that a family of 4 makes little less than $25,000 a year in my district.   Affording a lawyer or hoping that a lawyer would do pro bono work appears to be unrealistic to my family and other families around.  Also as you probably know, close to 25,000 families were evicted in New York just last year most because they couldn’t afford legal representation.

All I’m asking is to pass 214-A so that families and mothers like mine are given the best representation possible to avoid being part of another statistic.

Thank you.

WANDA SWINNEY

Hello my name is Wanda Swinney and I am a member of the Banana Kelly Resident Council. I am here today to speak in support of the passage of 214-A, Right to Counsel.

 I would like to explain, why I, personally feel the passage of this bill will benefit me and my community.

 I myself come from the shelter system and was given access to affordable housing in the South Bronx, which allowed me to raise 6 children in a stable environment. The help that I received early on not only helped me to become a working class shop steward union member of DC37 Local 420, it allowed me to found a tenant association, and create a community garden in my neighborhood.

Nearly 25,000 families, including older adults, were evicted in New York City last year. As an older adult in this city, this could be me. I have worked hard throughout my life to get to where I am, and it is an injustice that if any hardship fell on me I could be back in the shelter.

 A right to counsel in eviction proceedings will save the city money. Keeping families and older adults in their homes and avoiding homelessness will strengthen our city, save money, and will give our families stability.

 I urge City Council to pass 214-A before the end of the year.

 Thank you. 


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