Testimony by the New York Legal Assistance Group
Before the NYC Council In Support of Intro 214-A
Chair Rory I. Lancman, Council Members and staff, thank you for the opportunity to speak in support of Intro 214-A, which would create a right to legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in eviction, ejectment and foreclosure proceedings. My name is Beth Goldman, and I am President and Attorney-in-Charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). NYLAG is 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, 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. Through our Tenants’ Rights Unit and our Foreclosure Prevention Project, NYLAG works to prevent evictions and foreclosures and preserve affordable housing for more than 5,000 New Yorkers each year.
We would like to take this opportunity to commend the Council for examining the growing problem of housing preservation and homelessness in New York City and for continuing to seek solutions to ensure that all New Yorkers have safe and adequate housing. The lack of affordable housing in New York City has become a true humanitarian crisis, displacing families that have lived here for decades and causing many to enter the cycle of homelessness. Low-income New Yorkers at risk of eviction and foreclosure face an enormous justice gap. There is a drastic imbalance in the level of legal representation between landlords and tenants in eviction proceedings, as well as between banks and homeowners in foreclosure actions. These challenges are compounded for low-income elderly, disabled and non-English speaking clients. While the recent increased funding for housing counsel has been highly impactful, the imbalance remains. Nor can we ignore the possibility that funding can be decreased or eliminated as priorities and political winds shift. That is why establishing a right to legal counsel for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction and foreclosure is so important: it would ensure that New Yorkers facing the risk of losing a fundamental necessity of life – their housing — would have meaningful access to justice.
As the recent report from the NYC Office of Civil Justice demonstrated, even with the significant additional funding the City has committed to civil legal services, which has significantly increased the number of tenants represented, it remains the case that almost 75% of tenants facing eviction and 40% of homeowners facing foreclosure are still unrepresented. The only way to guarantee full representation for all vulnerable tenants and homeowners is to create a right to counsel.
Every day, NYLAG meets tenants who have unwittingly waived crucial rights and defenses in their eviction proceedings because they were unrepresented and unware of their legal options and remedies. New York City housing law is a vast and complex subject and even the most sophisticated tenants simply don’t know all of their rights. Landlords, on the other hand, are almost always represented by an attorney. This power imbalance results in tragic outcomes every day, including tenants who sign agreements to move out of an apartment they have a legal right to remain in; who agree to pay large sums for back rent or fees they don’t legally owe; who are intentionally misled to believe that their landlord’s attorney was actually their attorney or a neutral court attorney and, as a result, enter into an unfair agreement that is not in their best interest; who don’t know how to undo a default judgment that was entered against them because their landlord failed to serve them with court documents; and who agree to move out of their life-long homes after the death of a spouse or parent because they do not understand their succession rights.
Through our Foreclosure Prevention Project, NYLAG regularly meets homeowners who have been victims of mortgage scams, have already been foreclosed upon, or are on the verge of losing their homes to foreclosure. Often they were unaware that an action had been commenced against them until it was too late, cannot determine who owns their mortgage and therefore whether the person who sued them has standing to do so, and cannot determine whether the amount that is claimed is what they actually owe. Homeowners are often unaware of what modification and other workout options are available to them.
Legal counsel is often the difference between a just result and an unfair result. Almost 80% of tenants in New York City Housing Courts would qualify for counsel under Intro 214-A. Today, the Council will hear from and about many people who would have been unjustly evicted, paid more than they rightly owe or continued to endure unsafe and unhealthy conditions without counsel. These include the NYLAG client who almost lost her NYCHA apartment because her mental disabilities precluded her from effectively representing herself. Or the client who was ready to vacate an apartment she thought she could no longer afford until NYLAG determined that, in fact, the building was rent stabilized, so she had the right to stay and to pay a much lower legal rent. These are just some of the many tenants who have directly benefited from access to housing counsel.
As these cases starkly illustrate, one of the most effective ways for the City to address homelessness and maintain affordable housing is to provide all low-income tenants and homeowners facing eviction with access to legal services. It is far easier and more cost-effective to preserve housing than it is to find housing for an individual or a 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 a course of harassment. Individuals facing the threat of homelessness who are given access to an attorney are less likely to become homeless than those who do not have access to one.
In conclusion, New York City cannot resolve its housing crisis without providing individuals and families at risk of homelessness access to legal counsel as a matter of right. The New York Legal Assistance Group therefore urges the Council to vote in support of Intro 214-A.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I would be happy to answer any questions or provide any further information.
NEW YORK LEGAL ASSISTANCE GROUP
By: Beth E. Goldman, President & Attorney-in-Charge
Ann E. Dibble, Director, Tenants’ Rights Unit