Leveling the Playing Field for Tenants Facing Eviction

Posted by Lillian M. Ortiz on April 22, 2016

New York City renters who face eviction could get a little more help on their side if a proposed initiative is given the green light.

Two years after the introduction of a bill that would provide legal aid to low-income renters dealing with eviction proceedings, advocates are still fighting for residents’ right to counsel.

“Half of all the families that get evicted in this city would not get evicted if they had an attorney. So that’s 15,000 families [a year] at least …” said Susanna Blankley, the director of organizing for Community Action for Safe Apartments, a tenants rights group in the Bronx.

Blankley was one of six panelists who last week participated in a workshop that focused on new models for proactive anti-displacement policies at the 6th annual Community Development Conference, hosted by The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development Inc.

In the “Anti-Displacement Part II: Promising Solutions and Emerging Campaigns” workshop, Blankley discussed the importance of the right to counsel proposal, called Intro 214-A, which was introduced in the New York City Council in 2014.

If the measure were to pass, Blankley said New York City would be the first in the nation to offer such a program.

“How much more likely would you be to call 311 or organize a tenants association or fight back around really intimidating tactics if you knew you had a right to an attorney? We aren’t just talking about reducing evictions or reducing wrongful evictions. We’re actually talking about changing the nature of what court means in this city . . . and changing the field in which people negotiate their rights,” she said.

The proposal is estimated to cost at least $250 million to fund, according to a financial advisory firm solicited by the New York City Bar Association, which is three times more than the city currently pays for tenant attorneys.

The program, which would help an estimated 130,000 tenants, could save the city about $320 million a year when factoring in the cost of the program, emergency shelter for evicted families, and affordable housing savings, according to the analysis from Stout Risius Ross Inc., the firm hired by the City Bar association.

That figure is quite different from the picture painted by the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), and the City Council's Finance Division. The total cost of providing attorneys for low-income tenants who face eviction, according to the IBO, was $100 million to $203 million per year, while the finance department calculated that the city would spend $66 million annually to fund the proposal.

The difference in the cost analysis, according to the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, is, among other things, the IBO and finance division’s underestimation of:

• The number of families entering shelter due to eviction
• The cost of sheltering families
• The amount already committed by the city for eviction defense

However, according to a recent Bloomberg article, “the Bar Association's numbers rely on a hodgepodge of old data and untested assumptions.”

The issue of legal counsel is one raised in Matthew Desmond’s "Evicted," in which he recommends that establishing publically funded legal services for low-income families would be a “major step on the path to a more fair and equitable society” because it would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give families a fighting chance on a more even playing field. (Nationwide, 90 percent of landlords in the country obtain legal counsel, while only 10 percent of tenants do, Desmond reported.)

He cited a South Bronx program that provided more than 1,300 families with legal assistance, preventing eviction in 86 percent of the cases. The cost of that program, which ran for three years from 2005 to 2008, was $450,000, and it saved New York City $700,000 in estimated shelter costs.

Stopping Tenant Harassment

At the ANHD conference panel, James Rodriguez, a community organizer for Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), discussed tenant legal issues specifically related to harassment, and how gentrification has lead to “intense” situations between residents and landlords.

“The market has become so lucrative that the incentive to [get wealthier residents in] is actually resulting in really intense tenant harassment tactics,” Rodriquez said during the workshop. “Harassment actually does pay for landlords.”

He cited situations where tenants in a Lower East Side apartment building—mostly Mexican and Mexican immigrants—were forced to live without basic services like heat and hot water in the winter, and deal with late-night (3 a.m.) renovation projects occurring in their buildings.

When the New York City council approved its mandatory inclusionary housing plan in March, it also included a citywide anti-tenant harassment measure which would require that some landlords and building owners obtain a Certificate of No Harassment from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development before they are granted a permit for renovation work. (This measure was already on the books in several New York City neighborhoods, according to the city’s website.)

The logic behind the measure is that if a landlord has to prove that they haven’t harassed tenants in the past, it will keep them from engaging in the tactic in the future, Rodriquez said. 

GOLES has also worked with immigrant tenants who have been threatened with arrest and deportation. In one instance, Rodriquez said a landlord hired a private investigator, a fired NYPD officer who had been found guilty of murdering a resident in public housing several years prior. The investigator would knock on resident’s doors at 4 a.m., threaten them with deportation and/or arrest, and cause security concerns by leaving residential building doors open so outsiders could enter, Rodriquez said.

Immigrant-focused harassment issues aren’t new, and there has been some headway in the move to protect these tenants. New York City had passed other related measures last fall. And in 2013, for example, officials in Oakland, California, passed an ordinance that defended tenants against landlord harassment, which often takes place in rapidly appreciating markets. The Tenant Protection Ordinance in Oakland also included immigrant-specific protections.

Along with protecting residents, the Certificate of No Harassment program could also help with the loss of affordable housing stock in the city, according to Rodriquez. New York City loses tens of thousands of regulated units a year, he said, and is on pace to lose close to 100,000 over the next four years. Rodriquez believes the loss is, in part, due to increased turnover from tenant harassment.

(Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the author more ยป

Lillian M. Ortiz is the senior editor of Shelterforce Magazine.

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COMMENTS

Abbott Gorin
26 Apr 16, 9:08 am

As someone who spent many years with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development aiding tenants in their tenant-initiated actions concerning violation removal: I whole heartedly agree with the proposal for universal representation for indigent tenants in eviction proceedings. There is very little doubt that aiding tenants in staying in their apartments—besides stabilizing their home lives—would also raise the floor on habitable housing. Ms. Blankley’s assertion that legal representation would encourage tenants to form tenant associations would also have the effect of giving tenants a sense of permanence and build better communities. 

Too often the lack of representation for tenant only achieves one goal, i.e. allowing landlords unencumbered cash flow. While sufficient cash flow is always a consideration in raising the standard for demanding building repair, it has been an unequal equation with tenants being evicted and buildings not improving. Having an attorney there would hold landlords to the task for having good cause to evict a tenant. 

(From 1978 - 2007 I served as an attorney with the Housing Litigation Bureau of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. On numerous occasions I represented the Department in tenant initiated actions seeking violation removal).

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