Testimony: Preserve Affordable Housing Options for Seniors

Testimony by Elizabeth Esser-Stuart, Special Projects Coordinator of LegalHealth, before the NYC Council Committees on Aging regarding: Int. No. 337 – To Create a Senior Housing Task Force. 

Oversight: How Can the City Expand and Preserve Affordable Housing Options for Seniors

June 18, 2014

Chair Chin, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak about Int. No. 337, a Local Law to create a senior housing task force and how the city can expand and preserve affordable housing options for seniors, generally. My name is Elizabeth Esser-Stuart and I am the Special Projects Coordinator in LegalHealth, a division 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, 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 LGBT community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services. I am joined today by Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, Housing Law in NYLAG’s General Legal Services division1.

We commend all those who have worked on Int. No. 337 and any efforts to address the housing needs of seniors in New York City, and strongly urge its passing. Housing is a critical issue for many New Yorkers but especially for seniors. As baby boomers age, the elderly population on a fixed income will grow and these problems will become even more acute. As a free legal services provider, we see how seniors are affected by the threat of or actual loss of housing on a daily basis. As this body is acutely aware, this problem is particularly severe for elderly, low-income people with serious health problems. Many seniors with incomes that were once sufficient are struggling to remain in their homes and pay their medical bills. Not only do they have to deal with the health problem itself, but the expense of the health problem. The stress and uncertainty of facing eviction exacerbates their deteriorating conditions.

To mention just two examples, NYLAG recently assisted an elderly client who suffers from advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), who was residing in a rent stabilized apartment with her disabled son and was sued in housing court by her landlord for non-payment of rent. After numerous court appearances, NYLAG and the opposing counsel reached an agreement that the client was actually entitled to a sizable rent credit of about $1,850.00 and owed no rent. The landlord’s case was dismissed by the Judge. This client was terrified of losing her housing and may well have but for our intervention.

In another case, NYLAG is currently assisting a 79 year old client with prostate cancer. The client has resided in his rent stabilized apartment for over 40 years and has SCRIE. His income is approximately $1,300.00 per month. With SCRIE he pays rent of $492.00 a month. In an effort to evict him, his landlord filed a proceeding in Housing Court claiming that this was not his primary residence as the client spent some of the winter in Florida due to his health. With NYLAG’s representation, the holdover case was dismissed. The holdover case caused a delay in the client’s SCRIE renewal as the Landlord did not send him a new lease. Before the client could renew his SCRIE, the Landlord sued him again in housing court, this time for nonpayment of rent claiming client owed the full rent without the SCRIE deduction. With NYLAG’s assistance, the client’s SCRIE has been restored retroactively.

NYLAG has filed a counterclaim in the nonpayment action for landlord harassment and the case is still pending. In reviewing client’s rent history, it also appears that the client has overpaid rent and is due a rent credit from his landlord. This client, too, is afraid of his landlord’s constant efforts to evict him. It has caused him a lot of unnecessary stress at a time when he needs to concentrate on his health and treating his cancer.

Frankly, it is unconscionable in our city that individuals who have contributed to society cannot retire in relative comfort, but must worry about their housing. As such we commend all of you again for working to address this problem. If we could make one suggestion, we would further urge you to add a member to the committee who is familiar with city finance and who can audit or appropriately review any proposals. Although more housing is greatly needed, endeavors to develop housing often end up very profitable for private investors and should be fully investigated and explored through independent financial analysis before approved.

Of course, we also strongly urge the funding for legal representation for all low-income seniors in Housing Court as a relatively inexpensive measure to preserve affordable housing. In 2013, NYLAG assisted thousands of individuals and families with housing issues. NYC Housing Court is notoriously complicated and difficult to navigate. This burden should not be placed on low-income seniors to handle alone. In fact, all low-income seniors should be entitled to full representation in any housing proceeding.

We would also urge this task force once formed to further explore subsidizing senior housing through programs like SCRIE and Section 8. We realize that the latter is often dependent on funding from the federal government and hope we can work together to make sure such programs are fully funded so that seniors can afford their rent on an ongoing basis.

We would be happy to discuss our proposals further with the Council or other advocates and work together to make this program even better than it is. Again, we commend all those who have already worked on placing this program in existence, as well as improving it, and strongly urge the passing of Int. No. 337.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,
Elizabeth Esser-Stuart, Special Projects Coordinator, LegalHealth
Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, Housing Law

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1 For full disclosure, Kamilla is a former employee of the New York City Council where at one time, she served as counsel to the Committee on Housing and Buildings, as well as counsel to the (at that time) Subcommittee on Public Housing.