Testimony by Emily Veale, Staff Attorney in Housing Project, Before the NYS Assembly Standing Committee on Housing: Examination of New York’s Current Housing Programs
December 2, 2014
Chairman Keith Wright, Assembly Members, and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak about New York’s current housing programs. My name is Emily Veale and I am a Staff Attorney in the Housing Project at the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, 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, persons 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.
Improving housing for New Yorkers requires a multifaceted approach. However, as a nonprofit legal services organization that serves low-income tenants, our primary goal is to preserve affordable housing for individual tenants and their families and to assist in preventing homelessness. Our work involves representing low-income tenants throughout New York City, as well as in Long Island and Westchester, so we have seen how the current housing crisis has affected individuals from a variety of vulnerable populations. Our clients typically face eviction or displacement from their homes and are often at risk of homelessness. Therefore, my comments are offered from the perspective that the key to improving housing for New Yorkers is to keep tenants in affordable housing. Although this is a complex issue, I would like to focus on four areas that I believe have a significant impact on the housing crisis.
First, the preservation and increase in funding for legal services protections is vital. As this body is well aware, there is a drastic disparity in access to justice between tenants and landlords, particularly in New York City. The majority of landlords are represented by counsel, while most tenants are unrepresented and unaware of their rights. Even more troubling is that the landlords who rent to low-income tenants often use this knowledge to take advantage of them. We see tenants every day who are bullied and threatened by their landlords and who are afraid to assert their rights so as not to incur problems with the owners and management companies of their buildings. Although publicizing accurate information about tenants’ rights is an important step towards alleviating this problem, it is our view that the most effective solution is the codification of a right to counsel in Housing Court in New York City. Although NYLAG is committed to serving low-income tenants in New York City, we cannot help everyone. Without a codified right to counsel in Housing Court, the funding for legal services organizations like NYLAG can be eliminated or reduced at any time, leaving tenants at risk.
Second, the shortage of affordable housing in New York City must be remedied. Citywide, neighborhoods that were once affordable are being gentrified and low-income and minority residents are being pushed farther into the outer boroughs and sometimes out of New York City completely. Rent controlled and rent stabilized housing in these neighborhoods must be preserved in order to maintain the character, diversity, and affordability of these neighborhoods. Additionally, stabilized housing provides protection for low-income tenants, who have the right to renew their leases annually or biannually, unlike private housing where tenants have no guarantee that they will not be evicted upon the expiration of their leases. NYLAG’s Housing Project often works with clients who are constantly forced to move from one apartment to another, uprooting families and leaving friends, support services, medical providers, and forcing children to frequently change schools. Many of these families are unable to find alternate housing once their leases expire and are forced into eviction proceedings. Although they are sometimes given time to move, it is often not enough and many of these families end up in the shelter system. Thus, a crucial step in preserving the already inadequate stock of affordable housing is repealing the state Urstadt law, which restricts the City’s ability to regulate rent-related matters, and bringing control over rent regulation back to the city level.
Third, more immediate solutions are necessary to keep tenants in affordable housing. As mentioned previously, families who are brought into Housing Court in eviction proceedings are often given little or no time to find alternate housing and are then forced to enter the shelter system. New York City’s homeless population in shelters is higher than ever, over 50,000, and once individuals find themselves in the shelter system it is often difficult to get out. One immediate solution to this problem would be to enact a stay of evictions, particularly for low-income tenants, until more affordable housing units are available. Such a stay might be limited to particular types of housing or neighborhoods, but would certainly help curb the growing numbers of New Yorkers entering the shelter system.
Finally, more can be done to disseminate information about rental assistance available to particularly vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the disabled. Programs like SCRIE, which freezes the rents of elderly persons living in rent regulated apartments, and DRIE, which does the same for disabled persons, are critical in protecting these tenants from unfair rent increases and preserving affordable housing. Although the housing crisis cannot be resolved solely through these approaches, they are an excellent place to start the process of preserving affordable housing and ensuring that low-income tenants are not pushed out of New York.
We would welcome the opportunity to further discuss or comment on these matters in the future.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.
Emily Veale, Staff Attorney, Housing Project