NY Times Op-Ed gets it right about who wins in eviction court

Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard, recently wrote a great Op-Ed in the New York Times that makes a strong case for providing public funding for lawyers to represent tenants facing eviction. None of us who witness what goes on in eviction court today need to be reminded that virtually no tenants are represented by a lawyer, while landlords almost always are – with the predictable result that landlords almost always win and tenants almost always lose.  But Mr. Desmond’s research (he is writing a book on the subject) reveals the enormity of eviction’s consequences on society: increased homelessness, missed schooling and poor academic performance among children, entrenched poverty and depression.  He also points to a study that suggests legal representation would help the majority of families facing eviction stay in their homes, avoiding the downstream damage to their lives, and saving government money in the long run. Here is my December 10 (Letter to the Editor) in response.

Sadly, Matthew Desmond (“Tipping the Scales in Housing Court” – November 29) describes the scene in eviction court all too accurately. And although there are agencies, including our own, offering free legal assistance to poor and low-income tenants facing eviction, many people do not know such help exists, and even if they do, demand far outstrips the services available.  Now, we can add to this dismal picture the impact of Sandy. In the month since the storm, New York Legal Assistance Group has received thousands of requests for assistance. Landlord-tenant disputes over habitability and repairs are quickly becoming a major issue. Though many banks and institutions have placed a temporary hold on evictions and foreclosures, these reprieves are set to expire soon and we expect a flood of evictions in the new year. Tenants who stopped paying rent on uninhabitable space or who cannot afford payments after losing a job in the wake of the storm will need attorneys to protect their rights in these lengthy proceedings.

Now more than ever there are economic, social and moral reasons to give tenants a fighting chance by putting lawyers by their sides in eviction court.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The growing problem of mold

Mold is removed from a Sandy-flooded New York home.

Earlier this week the Gotham Gazette reported on the growing problem of mold in homes flooded by Sandy. Click here to read the article.

NYLAG has been seeing the problem first hand. For example, we are working with a 28-year-old single mother of three who lives in Staten Island. She is recovering from cancer and working two jobs, as a nurse’s assistant and home health aide. Since Thanksgiving, mold and mildew are appearing on their walls, clothes, and cabinets – rising from lower floors. Two of her young sons have chronic asthma and require daily nebulizer treatment. We are helping her secure FEMA assistance and deal with her landlord, who has been unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to treat the mold problem. This too seems to be a growing problem. Landlords and tenants and insurance companies and policy holders are increasingly locked in disputes over who is responsible to pay for remediating affected homes. Meanwhile, the mold grows.

Luckily, as the Gotham Gazette points out, there are many elected officials and citizen’s groups calling for creative solutions to get those affected out of harm’s way and into alternative housing and avoid the potentially serious health problems that can result from extended exposure to mold. We need to learn from the lessons of the past – including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina – and find workable solutions to address the ancillary, long-term harm to people that can last years after the clean up is over.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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One-stop Sandy aid centers a great step for NYC

The NYC Restoration Center in Coney Island.

Earlier this week Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of NYC Restore, a citywide initiative opening Restoration Centers in  neighborhoods ravaged by Sandy to connect residents and businesses with information and referrals to available City services and the many local community-based organizations lined up to help, as well as provide onsite FEMA reimbursement processing and access to a number of government agencies – all in one place, from 8:00 AM – 8:00 PM. Call it one-stop disaster relief aid for hard-hit New Yorkers.

NYLAG, I am proud to say, will be a part of NYC Restore, providing services at the Centers. But even if we were not involved, I would be applauding the City for moving quickly to create a locally based, integrated system for people to get the help they need.  For recognizing even before the storm struck that the devastation would demand immediate and unique responses from every level of government. And for taking responsibility for developing an ongoing plan for restoring our citizens and our communities, long after FEMA is gone.

The one-stop service model is a proven success in business, and increasingly in the social services and public interest sectors.  Perhaps the mayor learned this firsthand as the founder of Bloomberg LP, a computerized information service for the financial industry that owes its legendary success to the famous Bloomberg terminal – you might call it a one-stop shopping machine for financial professionals.

The same model is certainly evident in the approach that New York’s Family Justice Centers have taken to helping victims of domestic violence, who NYLAG also works to support through our Family and Matrimonial Law Unit. The centers are community-based and bring together City agencies and community service providers, making it possible for domestic violence victims to meet with a prosecutor, speak with a trained counselor, and apply for housing and financial assistance in just one visit.

Another winning example of the approach is of course Single Stop, an antipoverty program initiated by the Robin Hood Foundation to address the multiple challenges facing poor people including hunger, access to health care, debt and unemployment with a range of services including financial and legal counseling and job training. The effort is so successful in New York that it has now expanded across the country.

I am glad to see an idea we know works well applied to the needs of our City in the wake of Sandy.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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What I am thankful for – Thanksgiving Day, 2012

I have much to be thankful for. Over the last several weeks, I have been privileged to lead the New York Legal Assistance Group in mobilizing a relief effort to help vulnerable New Yorkers cope with urgent legal needs in the wake of SuperStorm Sandy.

NYLAG staff working in temporary offices.

NYLAG responded quickly and deftly on October 29th because we were strong and ready on October 28th. NYLAG is a mature organization with solid fundamentals, a talented management team and staff, a skilled and supportive board, dedicated partners and generous donors. Their energy, talent and support were already in place when Sandy struck, and the result has been NYLAG at its best.

I am grateful to the NYLAG staff, who were themselves displaced from their offices and in many cases evacuated from their homes or left without power, yet who somehow managed to maintain their caseloads while turning to help an entirely new group of clients affected by the storm.

I am grateful to our longstanding supporters, many of whom contacted me even before I could get to them. To UJA-Federation of New York, which not only wrote us a check, but also opened its midtown offices to our management staff and the newly created Storm Response Unit. To the Robin Hood Foundation, which provided not only immediate financial assistance, but also portable technology that is enabling our attorneys to be more productive on the ground, 24/7. And to FJC, whose response to our request for support was, as always, both swift and so generous.

The Mobile Legal Help Center in Red Hook

I am grateful to our community-based partners and to elected officials across the City and Long Island who have coordinated and promoted events in hard-hit neighborhoods where our lawyers and volunteers are providing invaluable legal assistance. Thanks to this effective network, our services are reaching the people who need them most, both onsite at local agencies and on-board NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center.

I am grateful to the legal community of New York. 11 firms (listed below) have graciously provided our lawyers with temporary office space and support, while at the same time over 1,000 lawyers from across the city have signed up for our recent trainings on FEMA applications and denials, and the growing list of other legal matters arising in the wake of the disaster. My phone still has not stopped ringing with offers of help.

In the weeks and months ahead we anticipate the need for legal assistance post-Sandy will only continue to grow. We have a long road ahead.

But today is Thanksgiving – and today I am grateful.

Cooley LLP

Kaye ScholerӬ LLP

Kirkland & EllisӬ LLP

Mayer Brown

O’Melveny & Myers”¨ LLP

Patterson Belknap ӬWebb & Tyler LLP

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP

Robert Half Legal

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

SNR Denton

Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

This is the inaugural post in my new series “Public Interest First,” a place for me to share my thoughts about issues and events that matter, for NYLAG and for me personally. I will try to be interesting and at least occasionally provocative, but most of all succinct. I invite you to check back weekly for more posts.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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There are better ways to honor Holocaust survivors

“Proudly Bearing Elders’ Scars, Their Skin Says ”˜Never Forget’,” published on October 2 in The New York Times, reports on young Israelis who have had their relatives’ Auschwitz numbers tattooed, as a deeply personal way to honor survivors.

As president of an organization that has served over 60,000 Holocaust survivors since 1999, it would be difficult not to be moved by the story – and dramatic photos – of the young heirs of Holocaust survivors who have taken the radical step of being tattooed with the same number as that branded on their elders by the Nazis at Auschwitz.  But as a gesture it is both inappropriate and meaningless. Tattooing as a way to remember and honor survivors trivializes and demeans the enormous significance of the Holocaust.  It diminishes the unique and abiding horrors experienced by Holocaust survivors.

To those who wish to honor their relatives who are Holocaust survivors, I say:  do something meaningful.  As your article notes, the population of survivors is dwindling.  Those who are still living are aging and suffering from the consequences of poverty and poor health.  Help them get the life-sustaining benefits that they need and deserve.  Make a donation, or volunteer for one of the many non-profit organizations that exist to help Holocaust survivors with food, health care, housing and other services.

The Auschwitz tattoo, as a dark symbol of the suffering of the Holocaust, belongs to those who survived the Holocaust, and to the millions who did not. It can never belong to the rest of us.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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