Earlier this week, Brooklyn A was in attendance at New York City Council’s public hearing concerning Intro 214-A, which aims to provide legal representation for low-income New Yorkers with eviction and foreclosure issues in Housing Court. If passed, Intro 214-A would provide representation to New Yorkers living at or below 200% of the poverty level, which would ultimately provide legal counsel for 82% of all cases heard in housing court.1 This would massively change the playing field which is currently largely one sided, with over 90% of all tenants appearing without legal representation and over 90% of landlords appearing with representation. For more information, and to sign the Right to Counsel Coalition petition to Mayor de Blasio, visit here.
Before the hearing was opened, the morning started off with a press conference on the steps of City Hall, with bill proponents, Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, along with many other city officials and councilmembers giving opening remarks and creating a lively atmosphere. Behind the speakers, supporters of Intro 214-A, from all over the city, stood in eager anticipation for the start of the hearing. Once underway, the Committee on Courts and Legal Services heard a compelling testimony by former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman, who urged the Council that passing Intro 214-A was a much needed step towards closing the justice gap in New York City and that doing so would make New York a national trailblazer in the civil justice field. The rest of the day was followed by many power testimonies by tenants, community organizers, lawyers, judges and Brooklyn A’s very own Group Representation Unit Staff Attorney, Ezi Ukegbu.
Ezi’s testimony addressed many of the facts, which show just how badly this legislation is needed, and gave vivid examples of her own experiences fighting for tenants on a daily basis. Read her full testimony below:
Good afternoon Chairman Lancman, and Council Members of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services.
My name is Ezi Ukegbu and I am a Staff Attorney in the Preserving Affordable Housing Program at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, Brooklyn A for short. At Brooklyn A, we prevent the evictions of hundreds of low-income tenants and their families in North and Central Brooklyn, primarily Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York each year through our model of collaborative group representation. We also bring affirmative litigation on behalf of tenants in order to defend them from harassment and discrimination. Brooklyn A is also a member of the Right to Counsel and LEAP Coalitions, organizations that support this bill, Intro 214-A, which provides the right to counsel to tenants who live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.
I am here today to talk about how crucial a right to counsel is for low-income tenants in New York City based on: 1) seeing that the working poor in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, like the ones we serve in Brooklyn, are incredibly vulnerable to displacement and 2) the uneven playing field in Housing Court where tenants, unlike landlords, do not have legal representation.
A right to counsel is crucial because many landlords harass and try to evict rent stabilized tenants in low-income areas by any means possible due to the current housing crisis in New York City. These landlords file meritless eviction cases, and if that doesn’t work, they refuse to make repairs forcing tenants and their children to live with collapsing ceilings, mold, no hot water and heat, hoping that the rent stabilized tenants will leave so they can renovate the building and charge market rate prices.
I have witnessed these tactics first hand while working in East New York, an area concentrated with poverty. One in three families in East New York earn less than $23,000 for a three-person household, which is $17,320 less than 200% of the federal poverty level.
Due to these dire economic circumstances coupled with landlords’ desire to capitalize from gentrification, landlords often harass tenants with the goal to evict them from their rent stabilized apartments. For example, one tenant in a rent stabilized building we currently represent in East New York did not have a functioning bathroom for a month because the landlord refused to repair a pipe leak that caused her bathtub to be filled with sewage and sludge. As a result, this tenant and her young son had to shower in a neighbor’s bathroom for an entire month. This same landlord also refused to repair another tenant’s bathroom sink for a year and brought meritless eviction actions against this tenant in Housing Court. Many landlords use similar tactics to force tenants out of their homes. It is impossible to bear such terrible housing conditions, withstand such harassment, and at the same time fight for your rights without counsel — all in a Housing Court that is often plagued with delays and in which a landlord, unlike tenants, virtually always has a lawyer. In fact, 90% of landlords in Housing Court have legal representation while more than 90% of tenants appear without representation. Under these deplorable circumstances, the need for a right to counsel for low-income tenants cannot be overstated.
Brooklyn A enthusiastically supports this bill and hopes that the Council will pass it into law. Thank you.
1Stout Risius Ross, Inc., The Financial Cost and Benefits of Establishing a Right to Counsel in Eviction Proceedings Under Intro 214-A, 2016, P15, link