Represent NYC: Fighting Eviction with Tenants’ Right to Counsel Law

Every year, over 20,000 NYC families are evicted from their homes, but with the passing of the 2017 Right to Counsel law, that number is gradually dropping as landlords can no longer prey on renters who can’t afford legal representation.

On this episode of “Represent NYC,” Council Member Mark Levine chats with Council Member Vanessa Gibson about their historic victory in getting this bill passed as well as their goals for expanding access to legal services for low-income families. The Council Members are also joined by Legal Aid Society’s Judith Goldner and Flatbush Tenant Coalition’s Estefania Trujillo, who discuss the dangers tenants face when beholden to hostile landlords and the importance of educating them about their rights.

This episode originally aired in September 2018. 

Read the transcript for this episode: 

 
 
Represent NYC: Councilman Mark Levine For Tenants' Rights Against Evictions
 
Judith Goldner and Vanessa Gibson
Aired: September 11th
 
DISCLAIMER: Please be advised that this transcription was done from a audio recording by an out of house
service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted. If there is an issue please contact
MNN info@mnn.org.
 
Mark Levine: Hello everybody. I'm Mark Levine, City Council Member from the 7th District in
Northern Manhattan. Welcome to another edition of Represent NYC. Today,
we'll be looking at one of the most game-changing new developments for
tenants in New York City, the roll out of the right to counsel for all tenants
facing eviction in New York City Housing Court. New York City is the first place in
America to launch this new right, and it's going to change everything about
housing courts for tenants. We're going to look today at the decades of inequality for tenants in housing
court that led to the need for this law, the process of how this historic
legislation was passed, and most importantly what it means for you and tenants
around the five burroughs. I am thrilled that to discuss this topic today, we are
joined by my colleague in the City Council, Vanessa Gibson, Council Member
from The Bronx and lead co-sponsor of this legislation. We're also joined by
Judith Goldner, one of the leading voices for legal aid for tenants in the City.
Later in the program, we're going to be joined by tenant activist Estefania
Trujillo. Vanessa, tell us why was this historic legislation necessary for tenants of
your district and in housing courts around the five boroughs?
 
Vanessa Gibson: It was necessary because tenants were going to housing court without legal
representation. 99% of tenants had no representation, and 1% did. And majority
of the landlords all had lawyers going to court. The reality is, we wanted to
balance the scales of justice. We wanted to provide equity in all housing courts
across the five boroughs to let tenants know that we support them, we're with
them, and we want to give them the fundamental right to have access to
counsel. And we truly believe that it's a fundamental right, just like we believe
that access to affordable and quality housing is a fundamental right. It's not a
luxury, but it's a necessity.
 
Vanessa Gibson: An average in The Bronx, my county, there were 11,000 evictions every year.
That affects families, immigrants, seniors, children. Many families on a fixed
income and a low income living below the federal poverty level. So, for me this
was about providing equity, providing fairness, and the bottom line, saving
families, keeping them in their homes, reducing the shelter burden, reducing
homelessness because we have seen the crisis across the city, and really making
sure that residents went to court equipped with a lawyer.
 
Mark Levine: Yes. As you mentioned, the city is in the midst of an eviction crisis. Tens of
thousands of New Yorkers have been losing their homes every year because of
eviction. Many thousands more are simply walking away from their homes
during eviction proceedings because of the intimidation of that process. And it is
feeding our homeless crisis. The number one cause of family homelessness in
New York City is not addiction or mental health issues. It is the loss of a home
through an eviction. Tell us, Judith, why are lawyers so critical to giving tenants
a fair shot in housing court and to preventing the epidemic of eviction?
 
Judith Goldner: Well, because many tenants don't know what their rights are. So, many lawyers
would tell you that New York State's housing laws are very, very complicated.
It's much more complicated if you're not represented by counsel. What we find
is, when we get involved, people have defenses. A lot of times tenants live in
rent-regulated housing and are being overcharged. They might not know they
were rent-regulated. Often, when they have a lawyer we can get their rent
reduced, we can make sure that they can pay their rent moving forward, we can
resolve the case in a way that prevents that eviction.
 
Mark Levine: Is it fair to say that, in almost every case, if the tenant has an attorney they have
a better chance of staying in their home or negotiating more favorable terms?
 
Judith Goldner: Absolutely. We're not able to save everyone's home. I mean, sometimes we
can't, although you know, we have almost a 90% success rate. But when we
can't save someone's...
 
Mark Levine: That's incredible. So, you have a 90% success rate of helping a tenant remain in
their home if you have an attorney on the case?
 
Judith Goldner: Absolutely. But, even for the 10% who we can't save their home ... You know,
sometimes people just are living in a home that there's a percentage of people
who live in homes that are not regulated, so you don't have a right to a renewal
lease, there are some people who are just living in an apartment that they can't
afford anymore. Even for those clients, we're able to almost always negotiate a
resolution that's more favorable to the tenant. Maybe it's a move out that
makes sense for them and their family. We help them figure out what their
other options are. Sometimes we're able to help people think about bringing in
a roommate or taking other steps so that they can afford the rent going
forward. And anyways, we are able to problem-solve, and I think that what is
sometime missed in the whole thing is that often, it's better for both the
landlord and the tenant for us to be involved because we are able to resolve the
case in a way that's mutually beneficial for everyone.
 
Mark Levine: That's right. Look, we've had a right to counsel in criminal cases since the '60s. I
believe, and I know you share this view, that anyone facing a life-altering
judgment, whether it's incarceration, loss of your home, deportation, loss of
custody of your kids needs to have representation. These are civil proceedings.
They're not criminal. But the implications are life-changing. So we've made this
case for civil justice in an arena that has suffered from unequal playing fields for
far too long. Of course, the landlord lobby was not happy with this effort, and
we won. We won this one against big odds and big forces. Vanessa, you were
there with me in the trenches. How did we win this one? What was the secret to
our success?
 
Vanessa Gibson: I've been asked that question a lot, and I think it started in 2014 when we first
introduced Intro 214, the right to counsel legislation, but it really started with a
fundamental belief that this was just the right thing to do. It was reasonable, it
was practical, and when you looked at the number of evictions, you looked at
the high concentration in communities of color - Northern Manhattan, Central
Brooklyn, South Bronx - we knew it was the right thing to do. Getting together
elected officials, our colleagues in the City Council, tenant advocates, civil legal
service providers coming together with the right mindset, with the right priority,
and the right mission, it wasn't easy. We had to convince a lot of people that it
was the right thing to do, but we truly believed that it was going to make an
impact, make a difference, save lives.
There are so many unintended consequences when you lose your home to an
eviction. You can lose your job, you lose stability, and we wanted to do what
was right by tenants. There are more tenants in this city than there are
landlords, and for me and you both representing high-concentrations of multi-
family dwellings of high density in a lot of buildings, we knew it was the right
thing to do. So I am grateful. This has been like life-changing. This has been
ground-breaking, and now we're seeing other municipalities across this nation
that are looking at some form of universal right to counsel. DC, Cleveland,
Newark, New Jersey, Los Angeles, San Francisco, all of these municipalities that
are saying, "Look at what they did in New York City. What's the secret?" But in
addition, while I believe that the concept and the mindset was a really
important part of it, we also needed the money behind it.
 
Mark Levine: Yes.
 
Vanessa Gibson: We needed the administration to realize that this investment of money was
going to save families, prevent evictions, prevent homelessness, and keep
families in their homes. As we build out more affordable housing, as we draw
down on the numbers in homeless shelters, we also have to recognize
preservation is a huge part of that conversation. And I look at Right to Counsel
and keeping families in their home as a part of housing preservation.
 
Mark Levine: That's right. And look, you point out the financial angle. This initiative will save
the city money. We spend, on average, $40,000 per year to house a family in
our shelter system, and the average stay is more than a year, now. We can
spend a couple thousand dollars upfront for an attorney in housing court and
keep that family in the home. So there's a huge human benefit for that family,
but the city is also gong to save some money. A big part of the case that we
went out and made, and we had an incredible coalition of not just tenant
activists and legal service providers, but faith leaders ...
 
Vanessa Gibson: Unions.
 
Mark Levine: Union leaders, academics, the mainstream legal community, the mainstream
bars, and just some of the most incredible activists that I've ever had the honor
to work with, including our allies at CASA that were just fierce and effective and
strategic in this fight. In the end, we did win historic victory.
 
Vanessa Gibson: Absolutely.
 
Mark Levine: And we're not marking the one-year anniversary. We passed this bill last August
in 2017. The bill was signed in August of 2017. We're coming up on the one year
mark. This is such a big program that the rollout itself is a five-year process.
 
Vanessa Gibson: Mm-hmm.
 
Mark Levine: We traditionally had over 200,000 eviction proceedings a year, and to ramp up
to full service is going to take a while. But we've got year one underway, and it's
already had a huge impact. Tell us Judith, what's changed now in housing court
for tenants one year into this implementation?
 
Judith Goldner: Well, I think there's a lot of ways it's changed. You know, you touched on the
fact that evictions are dramatically down 20%. That's huge when you think
about that.
 
Mark Levine: That's incredible. So, thousands of families are in their homes tonight, who
might have been evicted for lack of an attorney?
 
Judith Goldner: Exactly. So that's huge. To watch the eviction numbers, even in this crazy-
expensive city, go down. That's huge. What we really see also in housing court is
the increase in attorneys for tenants is making a difference in the culture of the
court. We have so many more lawyers there representing the tenants that, even
for the tenants who are not represented, we see a change in the way the court
treats tenants, and we see a change in how the court is reacting, how much
more decisions are being written, how much more seriously the court is taking
things. And we also see a drop in the number of orders to show cause. This may
not be...
 
Mark Levine: Explain the jargon of that.
 
Judith Goldner: This may be a little technical, but it used to be that tenants had to go back over
and over and over to get more time so that they could pay. When you have a
lawyer, you take that motion out because lawyers are able to resolve these
things without having to keep on going back to court. We take those things out
of the court, and that's better for the tenants because they don't have to show
up. Every time a tenant has to show up in court, they're going to lose a day
wages, it's going to make it harder for them to pay the rent. We take all that
out. Now, there's certainly been pushback. I'm not going to tell you there hasn't. The
landlord lawyers are very unhappy about what's happened, and they're
definitely trying to push back on our lawyers and on the tenants that don't have
lawyers. But I feel like we've been very effective at trying to counter that at
pushing back on what they're doing and on making it a much fairer playing field
for tenants.
 
Mark Levine: Well, and we know that, for years, really decades, landlords could count on the
fact that when they took the tenant to court, the tenant was probably not going
to have an attorney so they were often hauling tenants into court on very flimsy
grounds knowing that well, the tenant will be intimidated, maybe they'll take a
buy out, maybe they'll…
 
Judith Goldner: Maybe they won't show up.
 
Mark Levine: Maybe not show up, or just walk away. Perhaps a tenant would be
undocumented and would mistakenly believe that that in some way diminished
their rights as tenants. Of course the truth is, everyone has the same rights as a
tenant. It's not dependent on your citizenship status, but without an attorney
the tenant might not know that, and landlords were banking on that and really
developed a business model.
 
Vanessa Gibson: Mm-hmm.
 
Mark Levine: So, we have certainly heard anecdotally that there are some landlords that are
thinking twice before hauling a tenant into court, because now, they're much
more likely to face an attorney on the other side. Do we have numbers yet, that
the number of cases is dropping?
 
Judith Goldner: We do. It's not as dramatic as the number of evictions going down, but we are
starting to see less cases brought to court. Now, we hope that's because they
don't want to face a lawyer. I worry a little that they're doing more intimidation
upfront, but that's why it's so important that we have organizers in the field
letting people know you have rights. Don't just move out. I mean, I spend so
much time, and I know they spend more time on the phone with people saying,
"This notice doesn't mean you have to leave." I think that's so important that
people know that you have to go to court, you have to fight back. Don't just
move out when you get a notice from the landlord that says you have to leave.
And people, I think often, don't understand what their rights are, and if they
don't come to court, we're not in a position to kind of let them know what they
are.
 
Vanessa Gibson: In addition, I would also add that, it's really incumbent upon all of us to make
sure that we get the message out about Right to Counsel, about the eligibility,
making sure that when you call 3-1-1 you're referred to a and attorney. Using
public service announcements and making sure that we meet tenants as best as
we can where they are so they understand what's available. And also, language
access for our communities is very important.
 
Mark Levine: Absolutely.
 
Vanessa Gibson: It's really confusing when you go into housing court if English is not your primary
language to understand what's going on. So we're trying to be very creative and
innovative in our approach to promote Right to Counsel, to ensure that
residents are taking advantage of it. That's right. So, we're going to pause, now. I want to thank you, Judith, for
everything you've done to help lead this fight, and what you're doing for tenants
day in and day out. We appreciate your voice in this conversation. Vanessa and I
will be back in a moment to continue our discussion of this critical topic.
 
Mark Levine: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Mark Levine, City Council Member from Northern
Manhattan. We're continuing our discussion on the landmark legislation that
gives every tenant in New York City facing an eviction the right to an attorney in
housing court. I am thrilled that we're joined, now, by tenant organizer,
Estefania Trujillo, who is come in from Flatbush, Brooklyn where she's an
organizer with the Flatbush Tenant Union, to give us her perspective on this
important legislation. Start us off, Estefania, with telling us about why your
constituents, the residents of your community, needed the strength of this
legislation behind them.
 
Estefania T.: Yeah, definitely. So, at Flatbush Tenant Coalition, we also had a similar reform
housing court like CASA did. It was a little bit different, but a lot of their
concerns was also the environment, the hostility that was happening in housing
court, specifically because tenants were scared to go to court because they
didn't have legal representation. So having this right to counsel that was tenant-
led result into the passing of this legislation, this new right for starting to change
the dynamics of housing court, but also building power within our tenant
associations.
 
Mark Levine: Tell us how the passage of this law has changed your work as an organizer.
 
Estefania T.: Yeah, so when we do a lot of tenant association work, even when we start a lot
of tenants are scared to just even call 3-1-1 to report lack of repairs. One of the
first things we do when we start a tenant association is, we mention Right to
Counsel, and we use it as a way to get rid of that fear, right? Because right now
you have this new right, and you can use it to fight against the lack of repairs
because you're getting rid of that fear because you know you have lawyers right
behind you. An ally, if they ever do send you to housing court.
It's such a critical point. Tenants often live in fear because they feel like they're
going to be overpowered in court by a landlord with limitless resources. And
sometimes, instead of fighting, they just suffer in silence or even walk away
from their apartment, which is heartbreaking. Or, maybe they'll take a paltry
buy out. They'll take a $5-10,000 buy out to leave their apartment, and you
can't replace housing in New York City for $5 or 10,000. You're going to be
homeless after you burn through that in six months. What advice do you have,
Vanessa, to a tenant who's facing an unjust eviction proceeding or harassment
from their landlord?
 
Vanessa Gibson: I would say to any tenant, number one you are not alone. Please do not suffer in
the shadows of darkness. There is so much help out there. We are imploring you
to please come forward. Your status does not matter, your zip code, your
ethnicity, the neighborhood you live in. None of that matters, but please know
that there is help out there. Through Right to Counsel, you have a fundamental
right to an attorney if you're facing eviction proceedings in housing court. So
number one, we want you to call 3-1-1.
 
Mark Levine: Yes.
 
Vanessa Gibson: We want you to seek help. We want you to talk to someone. Call your local
elected official, call your borough president, call your local community board.
There are so many outlets out there. We want you to know that you're not
alone. It is heartbreaking for any resident in this city to feel the burden of an
unscrupulous landlord. I will tell a tenant, "There are power in numbers. There
are more of us than there are of them." And I say us because I'm a tenant, too,
and I live in a rent-regulated apartment building, and I see what my tenants go
through, and there is power in organizing. Because a lot of this work is really a part of a movement, and in order for this
Right to Counsel to have even been successful, tenants who were facing eviction
had to come forward and tell their story. They turned their pain into a plan with
a purpose, and they realized, "I am not alone. I won my case, and so can you."
So to any tenant out there that feels that they may be facing an eviction, it may
be illegal, regardless if you are behind in your rent, there is help out there.
Please seek us. Please reach out to us. Call 3-1-1 so that we can give you the
help you need.
 
Mark Levine: And we do have a lot of work to do to get the word out about this new right. I
mean, the right to counsel in criminal court, because it's been in place
nationwide for 50 years and been the subject of umpteen Law and Order
episodes, everyone knows about it. But I have to say, most tenants that I
encounter, unless they're very plugged in and politically active, don't yet know
about this right. So, Estefania what are you doing on the ground to spread the
word so tenants understand about this brand new power that they have?
 
Estefania T.: yeah, definitely. So in Flatbush, most of the ... Pretty much everyone in the
community there is Caribbean, immigrant, working families, seniors, people of
color who are being targeted by landlords so that they can take these
apartments back for profit. One of the things that we're doing is, because of
Right to Counsel, we're focusing on landlord cohort. So, we're identifying target
landlords who are using housing court as an eviction mill, and we're basically
working with different buildings with tenant leaders in all of those buildings to
kind of find the patterns that landlords are doing, like the patterns of
harassment that they're using against tenants, and then kind of building that
power that you mentioned. You know, building tenant power to fight against
harassment, through construction, through housing court, lack of repairs, and
things like that.
 
Mark Levine: That proactive work is so important. If we don't connect a tenant to an attorney
until the day they walk into court, they're at a disadvantage. You want the
attorney involved as soon as possible. Preferably before there's even an eviction
proceeding in cases where the landlord is depriving the building of essential
services, engaging in harassment, raising the rent beyond the legal maximum, all
the kinds of conditions that you described. Using construction as a weapon is a
shockingly common tactic by the most abusive landlords, one that we've
learned, in recent days, has been used by the Kushner family and Michael
Cohen.
 
Estefania T.: Yep.
 
Mark Levine: These are two Trump inner-circle people. People outside of New York City might
think this is an obscure thing, but it's done ... It's right out of the play book of
the worst landlords in New York City. We are seeing attorneys for landlords try
and circumvent this new Right to Counsel which comes into play when tenants
walk into a court by trying to connect with tenants before they show up to
court, by even going to them when they're in line in the morning and saying,
"You know, I have a great deal for you. I can't guarantee it's going to be on the
table once you walk in and talk to your attorney. How can we get to tenants
before they're in the midst of high-pressure coercion campaign by the landlord
representatives?
 
Estefania T.: Yeah, definitely. So like in CASA, Northwest Bronx, Flatbush Tenant Coalition, we
started focusing on the first three subcodes per each burrough, so what we've
been doing is just cold outreach. What that means is just knocking on doors,
buildings that maybe we haven't worked with before, but kind of letting them
know what their rights are, asking them, "Would you want to start a tenant
association?" And we really say that it's very important. There's some buildings
that maybe the landlord just purchased and he hasn't started to kick everyone
out yet, but we mention, "Listen, you need to start organizing. These are the
patterns that we're identifying in other buildings. It's really important for you to
organize." We really try to identify tenant leaders in all of the buildings to really
get them to take part, and also, you can identify them, as well, through the 3-1-
1 calls. They're really a key component in helping us spread the word throughout all the
zip codes and even beyond that.
 
Mark Levine: Absolutely. Vanessa, we have talked about taking this historic legislation and
making it even more comprehensive.
 
Vanessa Gibson: Yes, the next level.
 
Mark Levine: And making it even stronger. We call it Right to Counsel 2.0. Tell us about where
you think the future of Right to Counsel needs to go in New York City.
 
Vanessa Gibson: I think we recognize that Intro 2014, Universal Right to Counsel, we had to start
somewhere, and that had to be an income threshold. We used the federal
poverty levels, and 200% of the federal poverty line as our maximum where
tenants would be eligible. But we realized that that wouldn't capture everyone,
so we realize that as we continue to expand from year one to year two as we
expand in the various zip codes throughout the five borroughs, we needed to
make sure that we captured the households that were above 200%. Many of
these families are working class New Yorkers. They are still income-based,
they're still on fixed incomes, same populations - people of color, seniors, et
cetera - so we realize that we have to capture them in some way, because right
now under the current law, they are eligible for some level of a consultation,
but not a full-fledged service from beginning to end. And that's not enough.
 
Vanessa Gibson: So, 2.0 is going to be new legislation introduced in the City Council by both us,
and it's going to look at raising that threshold to 400% of the federal poverty
level, because we want to recognize many of the families that fall right in the
middle of that income bracket, and we want to say to them that they are just as
important as everyone else. We did have to start somewhere, so I want to
recognize that we couldn't start and serve everyone, but we did want to say do
this in stages. So I believe that this is the right approach, and when we continue
conversations with the Right to Counsel coalition on 2.0, we want to make sure
that we capture the remaining New Yorkers that are still facing rent burden,
that are still facing harassment by landlords, and all the other challenges that
many New Yorkers are facing today.
 
Mark Levine: That is absolutely right. We're going to keep fighting to expand this right. We
want to emphasize to viewers that don't sit with the calculator and try to figure
out whether your family's gross income is above or below the threshold. If you
are facing an eviction, if you're facing landlord harassment, don't wait. Reach
out for help. You can go to your local council member or elected official, a local
tenant advocates group, legal aid provider, or you can call 3-1-1.
We are also, in the 2.0 version of our legislation, we're making sure that
residents of public housing are covered. All residents. Not just when they
appear in housing court, but there's a first step for metro residents in
administrative hearings, and we want to make sure that all metro residents
have an attorney in administrative hearings, but we also want to make sure that
residents in other government housing, whether it's HUD housing, DHCR
housing, Mitchell Lama housing is covers, and we want to cover tenants on
appeal because sometimes there can be a second round of legal battle, and
we're also pushing to make sure that the office of court administration, which
runs the courts, implements this in a way that gives access to everybody, that
has great translation services, that has good signage, that gives a private space
for the tenants to consult with their attorney so they're not exposed to being
overheard by potentially the landlord's attorney or anyone else.
 
Mark Levine: We have a lot of work to do to make sure this is implemented in an efficient way
that is accessible to everybody, whatever language they speak, whatever their
background. We have made huge progress, but we're going to continue to fight.
Estefania, what is your message to tenants today about how to fight when
they're confronted with this kind of abuse?
 
Estefania T.: Definitely. What I would say to them is, don't give up. You know, as a daughter
of immigrants, like I'm an immigrant, myself. We came to this country, we
provided such a benefit to the communities that we're from, and that we should
just fight so hard to stay in our homes. We shouldn't give up. We shouldn't
allow landlords who have all this power to bring us down, right? We have rights.
Even before Right to Counsel, we did have rights, but we didn't know about
them. But the best thing is that now we have another tool. We have this other
right that we can use alongside our tenant association, our communities, to
fight against that. We deserve to stay in our homes. Housing is a human right,
and if landlords don't believe it, then we're going to show them, because we
have more tenants than we have landlords, and we just need to fight back.
Mark Levine: What an eloquent and powerful message to close on. We are out of time. This is
such a big topic, we could continue. I want to thank you, Estefania, for not just
being here but the work you're doing for tenants day in and day out. And of
course, to my partner in this effort, the incredible Vanessa Gibson, council
member from The Bronx. Thank you for everything you've done.
 
Vanessa Gibson: Absolutely.
 
Mark Levine: For being the best partner that I could have asked. We're only beginning to
accomplish things for tenants. I look forward to continuing to work with you in
our cause.
 
Vanessa Gibson: Part one.
 
Mark Levine: And I want to thank our viewers for joining us on another edition of Represent
NYC. Thank you so much.