Testimony by the New York Legal Assistance Group
Re: Int. No. 477 – In relation to evictions of elderly tenants; Int. No. 755 – In relation to evictions of disabled tenants.
Before the New York City Council, Committee on Housing and Buildings
May 4, 2016
Chairman Williams, Council Members, and staff, good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak about these proposed bills. My name is Leigh Mangum, and I am a Supervising Attorney in the Tenants’ Rights Unit 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 Cristina Pejoves, a Staff Attorney in the LegalHealth Unit, which partners with hospitals to run on-site legal clinics in order to address the non-medical issues faced by individuals suffering from serious health conditions. NYLAG’s Tenants’ Rights Unit provides comprehensive legal services to New York City residents, including through HRA’s Homelessness Prevention Law Project, or HPLP. In 2015, NYLAG provided housing preservation legal services to more than 5,800 clients. LegalHealth is the largest medical-legal partnership in the country, running legal clinics at 25 hospitals. Last year, LegalHealth handled over 7,400 new matters for patients referred by physicians, social workers, and community-based health organizations.
First, we would like to strongly commend the City Council for continuing to take steps to address the growing problem of homelessness and housing insecurity in New York City, and for seeking solutions to ensure that all New Yorkers maintain stable housing. Eradicating homelessness is an essential step in addressing poverty and improving the lives of New Yorkers. Homelessness is a significant drain on city and state resources, from shelter costs to increased healthcare costs, and finding solutions to provide housing and keep individuals and families housed will benefit all New Yorkers.
The bills currently under consideration are laudable for recognizing that referrals to legal services can help prevent improper evictions for vulnerable populations. We support the goals of increasing protection for elderly and disabled tenants. However, NYLAG believes that every tenant who is faced with eviction would benefit from additional protections, including referrals to counsel. Therefore, we urge the City Council to expand the bills’ scope to include all tenants facing eviction in New York City. We believe that it is preferable to be over-inclusive in providing information about legal counsel. Disabilities take many forms, not all of which are visible, and a landlord may not be aware that their tenant is disabled at the time of serving a Housing Court petition. For example, Sandra is a Brooklyn tenant who is a single mother to her 14 year-old son who came to NYLAG through a LegalHealth partnership. She suffers from lupus, which causes her severe weakness and fatigue, but is not likely discernible to her landlord. As a result of Sandra’s condition, she had to stop working, fell behind in her rent, and was sued in a nonpayment case. NYLAG is currently defending her in Housing Court and expects her to be approved for CityFEPS, which will allow her to preserve her rent stabilized tenancy, relieve the stress and detrimental health effects of housing instability, and keep her son in the school he attends. If Sandra had not already been working with LegalHealth, she may not have known about the availability of free legal assistance for her housing issues.
A bill that forces tenants to disclose their disability and landlords to identify who is and is not disabled would be problematic for both the landlord, who may inadvertently violate the law if their tenant’s disability is not obvious, as well as the tenant, who may not want to disclose the fact or nature of their disability and who would not receive legal referrals as a result. Providing legal referrals to all low-income New Yorkers who are at risk of eviction eliminates this complexity.
By increasing funding for legal service providers, the Mayor has already taken steps towards recognizing that everyone has a fundamental human right to housing, which ensures access to safe, secure, habitable, and affordable homes with freedom from forced eviction. The Mayor has recognized that homelessness leads to costlier outcomes not only for tenants but for the City of New York. By providing all tenants facing eviction in Housing Court with referrals to legal services, NYC will make further strides towards ensuring that no low income tenant goes without a proper defense.
Housing is a key component of maintaining a basic quality of living. Housing is also recognized as a critical social determinant of health, meaning that one’s housing affects his or her health outcomes and may contribute to various health inequities. The fact that health and housing are often inextricably linked is most evident with the medically homeless, a population that suffers from serious and chronic illnesses and is also unstably housed or homeless. For example, a cancer patient may face eviction for non-payment of rent after losing their job due to illness. Should this patient lose their housing, their health would likely suffer as a result, as unmet housing needs are significant predictors of missed appointments, treatment adherence and worsening of health outcomes. One way to prevent this outcome is by ensuring that sick and disabled individuals have access to legal resources. While it is vital that we address housing stability for all New Yorkers, ensuring that the sick and disabled do not lose their housing is particularly important because their homelessness significantly affects state and city resources. Without adequate housing, the medically homeless become one of the most frequent visitors to hospitals’ emergency departments, which drain safety net hospital resources. By ensuring that the sick and disabled get referred to legal services, we are helping to keep them in permanent housing as opposed to shelters, which are unequipped to care for their medical needs. We are also helping them to avoid costly and often avoidable hospital admissions.
In addition, there are great social and fiscal costs of eviction and homelessness for families with children, many of whom would not fall under the protection of the bills as currently drafted. Approximately 23,000 children will sleep in NYC shelters tonight, and many thousands more are in overcrowded housing. Children are also among the most vulnerable of New Yorkers.
Expanding the categories of people at risk of homelessness who will receive legal referrals eliminates a significant, often unachievable burden on landlords and tenants, and, by increasing access to civil legal services, will help further reduce homelessness in NYC.
Once again, we thank the City Council for inviting NYLAG to testify and we applaud the City Council for putting forth these bills that help provide greater protections to New York City’s most vulnerable residents. NYLAG strongly supports the spirit of Int. 0477-2014 and Int. 0755-2015 and invites the City Council to expand upon them.
NEW YORK LEGAL ASSISTANCE GROUP
Leigh Mangum, Esq.
Cristina Pejoves, Esq.