Testimony by New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG)

Before the New York City Council: Committee on General Welfare 

Oversight – Addressing the Homelessness Crisis

December 9, 2015

Chairman Levin, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the homelessness crisis in New York City. My name is Kevin Kenneally and I am a Supervising Attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, veterans, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, people with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services. I am joined today by Richard Jimenez from NYLAG’s Housing Project. My testimony was written with Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, Housing Law and Julia Lake, Poverty Justice Solutions Fellow.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the City Council for examining the continuing problem of homelessness in New York City and for your ongoing work seeking solutions to ensure that all New Yorkers have safe and adequate housing. We also want to thank the City for the tremendous increase we have seen in funding for anti-eviction and anti-tenant harassment over the past several years. This funding is one critical step toward ensuring that tenants are not improperly forced out of their apartments and into shelters or onto the streets. Preventing and eradicating homelessness is an essential step in addressing poverty and improving the lives of New Yorkers. In addition to being a humanitarian crisis, homelessness is a drain on City and State resources, from shelter costs to increased healthcare costs to the trauma inflicted on families to the destruction of communities. Finding solutions to provide affordable housing and keep individuals and families housed benefits society and all New Yorkers.

NYLAG represents tenants in Housing Court and before various agencies throughout the five boroughs, where we see firsthand the threats to safe and affordable housing faced by our clients. We also see what our work preventing evictions means to low-income individuals whose already destitute situations would have been made far worse without our intervention. Many of our clients live in the quickly-diminishing stock of rent-regulated apartments in the City, and our goal is both to prevent these individuals and families from losing their homes and to ensure that rent-regulated apartments stay under regulation as required.

Unfortunately, NYLAG also sees many cases where non rent-regulated tenants are repeatedly forced to move from one apartment to another, often annually, leaving neighborhoods, friends, family, support services, and medical providers, and forcing children to change schools frequently. Many of these families are unable to find alternate housing once their leases expire and are taken to Housing Court by their landlords. Where possible, we obtain more time for these families before they have to leave the apartments, but even with additional time, they are often unable to find alternate housing and end up entering the shelter system.

As the City has recognized, one of the most effective ways to address homelessness is to provide access to legal services for vulnerable communities. It is easier and more cost-effective to preserve housing so that an individual or family does not become homeless than it is to house an individual or family that has become homeless. Attorneys are able to protect tenants’ rights, keep tenants in stabilized apartments, assist tenants with obtaining appropriate subsidies, preserve subsidies, ensure housing is safe and habitable, and arm tenants with knowledge regarding their rights. When a tenant has an attorney, a landlord is much less likely to pursue a frivolous claim or try to initiate an unfair buy-out of a stabilized unit. Individuals facing the threat of homelessness with access to an attorney are less likely to become homeless than those who do not have access to one.

For example, a colleague recently assisted Tanya, a woman who lives with her husband and two disabled children in Queens, and was recent brought to Housing Court by her landlord. Through a thorough investigation of the case, NYLAG learned that the landlord was receiving a 421-a tax abatement, and that the apartment was rent-stabilized, meaning that the family was entitled to a renewal lease. After NYLAG helped Tanya amend her answer and assert her defense and counterclaims, the case settled. Under the settlement, the landlord acknowledged Tanya’s status as a rent-stabilized tenant, discontinued the case, waived arrears that Tanya owed, and completed repairs that were needed in the apartment. Without NYLAG’s intervention, Tanya and her family would have been evicted and likely would have become homeless. NYLAG and other legal services providers in the city handle thousands of cases like this every year, and without our help tenants would be at a very high risk of homelessness.

While increased funding for legal services in Housing Court is an important step, legal services alone cannot eradicate homelessness. In addition to legal services, we need better legal protections for all tenants, not just those who happen to be lucky enough to live in rent-regulated apartments, along with larger and more accessible rental subsidies. For example, NYLAG staffs legal clinics in the Bronx and Manhattan Veterans Administration Hospitals. We see many veterans there who are homeless or who are at risk of being homeless. Fortunately, there is a special Section 8 subsidy for veterans, HUD/VASH. The creation of this subsidy has gone a long way towards ending veterans’ homelessness, and is proof that providing marginalized communities with affordable housing and/or subsidies can result in reducing homelessness. However, despite the great strides made toward ending homelessness for veterans, many of our clients are perpetually at risk of becoming homeless because it is difficult to find safe, habitable, and affordable housing in New York City, even with a subsidy. Further, there are far fewer supportive housing units available than we need to provide for the many veterans in our city who are struggling with mental illness.

We would also like to bring to your attention another critical issue, which is the plight of the medically homeless: individuals not sick enough to require inpatient treatment at a hospital, but not well enough to stay in a general shelter. Currently, there are only two programs in New York City that could be considered medical respite centers equipped to deal with those who are severely ill and homeless. Many individuals who are medically unsuitable for a shelter placement end up remaining inpatient at their treating hospital. Without a way to house and stabilize sick people, resources are spent keeping individuals in hospitals when a hospital stay is no longer medically necessary. New Yorkers with acute and chronic illnesses require supportive housing and access to medical respite to help stabilize their housing, improve their health, and allow them to transition out of homelessness.

In conclusion, New York City must take care of its most vulnerable by providing supportive housing and medical respite programs. More importantly, we need more affordable housing options, including viable and permanent rental assistance subsidies, further protection of the stabilized housing stock, and new protections of the private stock. It is also critical for all individuals and families at risk of homelessness to have access to free legal counsel. Without the protections of rent-regulated housing, rental subsidies, and emergency rental assistance programs, and without legal assistance to navigate these complex programs, many low-income tenants remain at serious risk of losing their apartments and entering shelter.

We would be happy to discuss our proposals further with the City Council and other advocates and are committed to continuing to work together to eradicate homelessness in New York City.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,

New York Legal Assistance Group