Blazing a new trail for housing justice: A Q&A with New York City’s Right to Counsel Coalition

By Isaiah Milbauer, NLIHC Field Intern

New York City eviction proceedings have long been a tale of the powerful versus the powerless. Historically, renters hardly ever receive legal representation in eviction court proceedings, but landlords almost always do. (And this is true in housing courts everywhere across the country!) As a direct result of tenants lacking legal representation, in New York City, thousands are evicted each year, allowing landlords to raise rents for the new renters who move-in to newly vacant homes. Due to complex and sometimes inaccessible legal barriers, marginalized families often are unable to challenge deplorable living conditions in court—even if, in the worst cases, low income children have been poisoned by lead exposure in their homes.

To remedy a major piece of this injustice, renters in New York City led by the Right to Counsel Coalition (RTC NYC) waged a 3-year campaign to institute a civil right to counsel for low income renters facing eviction. In 2017, RTC NYC’s organizing efforts led to the passage of Intro 214-B, which cleared the New York City Council and was signed into law by Mayor Bill DeBlasio. When fully implemented over the course of 5 years, the law will ensure that all income-eligible renters in New York City facing eviction are represented by attorneys. Currently, an estimated 400,000 renters would be eligible for protection under Intro 214-B. The law is anticipated to prevent 5,000 families per year from experiencing homelessness, and save the city $100 million annually, due to decreased homeless shelter costs. “This new law is a historic step forward in the fight against unlawful evictions,” said City Councilman Mark Levine, lead sponsor of Intro 214-B, at the law’s signing ceremony.

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But the passage of Intro 214-B did not happen overnight. It required years of building tenant power and sustained community organizing. And it required the engaged leadership of low income tenants—especially those who had experienced evictions. One such story comes from Randy Dillard, a father of five from the South Bronx and a tenant leader at CASA, Community Action for Safe Apartments. Randy shared his story at NLIHC’s 2018 Housing Policy Forum: Building the Movement.

In 2013, Randy was hospitalized for two months with emphysema. He returned home to find eviction papers for rental nonpayment. Luckily, Randy found a legal clinic that defended him in housing court, which helped his family narrowly avoid becoming homeless. Randy became a CASA member following this experience with near-eviction.

Also in 2013, CASA and the Urban Justice Center released a report recommending reforms to New York’s housing court—including the right to counsel for New York renters facing eviction. RTC NYC formed soon after, in 2014, as a partnership of more than 100 tenant organizing groups, tenant advocates, academics, senior advocates, disability advocates, homeless advocates, labor unions and legal service providers, including CASA, to spearhead the passage of a right to counsel law. That proposal became known as Intro 214.

RTC NYC’s organizing efforts included a daylong forum, drawing crowds of close to 500 people, featuring speakers such as New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, New York City Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, and New York Law School Adjunct Professor Andrew Scherer. RTC NYC also collected thousands of signatures on petitions, received support from 42 community boards, got the backing of 100 faith leaders, received a New York Times editorial board endorsement, arranged numerous rallies and press conferences, and coordinated eight hours of City Council testimony.

NLIHC was honored to recognize RTC NYC’s organizing and accomplishments with the 2018 Trailblazer Award at the 2018 Housing Policy Forum: Building the Movement. We look forward to the benefit these accomplishments will bring to low income New Yorkers, and the positive ripple effect for movements elsewhere across the country taking inspiration from RTC NYC’s work.

-Isaiah Milbauer

Isaiah Milbauer: How did you recruit organizations to join RTC and incorporate the leadership of low income tenants?

Right to Counsel New York City Coalition: Well the leadership of tenants who are directly impacted by evictions was always central–the coalition really started that way.  So at every coalition meeting, where there were attorneys, paid staff, organizers, etc., there were always tenant leaders. We also had a decision-making structure that prioritized the organizing groups voices on issues where that was really necessary—so in terms of negotiating the legislation, or planning a press conference, etc., the organizing groups who are accountable to members took the lead on those decisions.  In terms of building the membership of the coalition, we built relationships with folks and we also knew that this isn’t a “tenant issue,” because our members are just tenants! They are seniors, workers, folks with disabilities, etc. And housing is such a central issue in NYC, that we knew a broad based coalition would be possible and we also knew it was necessary because of the fiscal impact of the legislation and because the Mayor and Speaker did not voice support for the legislation for the first few years—they agreed with the idea but said it was either too expensive or that it was the state’s responsibility.  Most people told us we would never win this—that it was so big, so expensive, such a sea change—it just couldn’t be done. So, centering the leadership of tenants who were fighting evictions kept us on track to say we can’t accept that and also pushed us to build a coalition with the power we needed to win.

IM: How did you build consensus on how to approach the issue of a right to counsel in eviction proceedings? How did you coordinate efforts between member organizations?

RTC NYC:  Honestly, that wasn’t hard.  Studies show that anywhere from 50-80% of tenants who are evicted today, wouldn’t be evicted if they had an attorneys.  That is thousands of families. thousands of workers. Many of whom end up in the shelter system. And many of whom are evicted from rent stabilized housing.  Not to mention that evictions are a precursor to suicide and incredibly traumatic. So, evictions are about power. The idea that we put people on the streets, as a solution to honoring landlords right to get rent, is unacceptable.  Now you have that on top of the fact that there are people who are on the street that the law should protect? That’s a really strong indicator of who and what we value in this country. So we really saw eviction defense as a part of the fight for housing to be a right.

But to answer your question, we had monthly coalition meetings and working groups that would meet in the context of those meetings, in break out groups.  That way different folks can participate at different levels but everyone can be a part of the larger work of the coalition. We met monthly, though there were times during the campaign, where we met every two weeks or more often if we needed to.  We did our best to make decisions by consensus, though recognizing that not all voices are equal as I mentioned earlier, and we also did different things like developing principles for the coalition that folks signed on to, had different levels of participation for members vs. supporters, etc.

IM: How will RTC NYC’s work continue through the implementation of Local Law 136?

RTC NYC: The administration committed to funding legal representation or attorneys but not organizers.  So while the city will do outreach and advertising, it didn’t fund community based groups to do outreach and organizing.  And because of our work, we know that you can’t address power and inequality with outreach and advertising. You need to build relationships and confront power and isolation with the community and collective power.  So, we are working to coordinate the organizing efforts in every neighborhood that has RTC, so that folks know they aren’t alone when landlords threaten them for “lawyering up,” and also that they know other tenants who have decided to fight, and that they know they are worthy of fighting.  There is a lot of shame in evictions—and we have to confront that. Also, we have to fight evictions, collectively, as a political issue. There are landlords who sue everyone when they buy a building as a business practice, threaten everyone with calling ICE, etc.—so we are working with community groups to really strategize about organizing to claim the power of eviction defense and also to use it to build other organizing strategies.  We are also working on the court based implementation—everything about how the court works is changing. We are working on helping to develop a pipeline of movement attorneys to do this work and we are actively working with cities throughout the country who also see eviction defense as a tool in fighting displacement, gentrification and for community control and community power.

IM: Who were the unspoken heroes of this campaign?

RTC NYC: Something we were always mindful of during the campaign was that people were being evicted every day. Deciding to fight is also deciding to take a risk—and without RTC so many people took that risk.  Many lost and many won. All of them are heroes. And all of the tenants today who are deciding to fight to stay and to build this city are heroes.

IM: What’s next for RTC NYC? Does the coalition plan to tackle right to counsel in other metro NYC jurisdictions? Will you turn your attention to other housing justice issues in the city?

RTC NYC: Definitely–when we are asked to! We want to be a resource to organizing groups in other cities who want to have the right to an eviction defense.  So when cities reach out to us, we are happy to share everything we have because we know that oppositions actions and narratives are often similar. We know the context in other cities is different but we think that if we can do this is the real estate capital of the world, the place where it’s most expensive to do it, we can do it anywhere.  We are really excited to be collaborating with the San Francisco Tenants Union, who has RTC on the ballot and the Homes for All Campaign in Newark, who recently got an endorsement of RTC from Newark’s Mayor. Really exciting! In addition to those cities, we are talking to folks and sharing information in about a dozen more cities. We just created a new civil right—that shouldn’t be exclusive to NYC.  To help support that work, we are working on raising funds to create a campaign toolkit and a documentary about our campaign, that hopefully will be good resources for folks in other cities. And of course, RTC isn’t the only housing issue we work on! Many members of the coalition work on strengthen the rent laws, fully funding public housing, creating community land trusts, etc. The work doesn’t end with eviction defense of course–we have to address the underlying causes that create the system of housing as we know it today.

IM: What advice do you have for organizers and coalitions in other parts of the country advocating for citywide solutions to housing injustices?

RTC NYC: Demand the impossible!! Often we lose because we accept compromise, thinking it’s all we can get.  We have to demand what we deserve and what we need. And then build the power to win it. It might mean we lose along the way, but as long as we are building power as we move along, we can do anything.  I also think that now is a critical moment in our history where the crisis is so deep, that we have to offer solutions and alternatives and I think they have to be solutions that don’t just demand more from the private market but that question the market’s ability to deliver needs, like housing.  There are no great solutions coming from anywhere other than from us.


This post is part of a series featuring interviews with 2018 NLIHC Organizing Awards winners and top nominees. 

It’s Time to Broaden the Affordable Housing Movement

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By Mike Koprowski, Campaign Director for Opportunity Starts at Home 

A safe, decent, affordable home is a foundation of opportunity, but it’s out of reach for far too many.  The evidence is quite clear that we are witnessing a severe housing affordability crisis in America, and its consequences are spilling over into many other sectors such as education, health care, civil rights, homelessness, and economic mobility.  As acclaimed sociologist, Matthew Desmond, explains: “It is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need.  Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country.  The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”    

I’ve recently taken on the role of National Campaign Director of Opportunity Starts at Home, a new multi-sector housing campaign to meet the housing needs of the nation’s low-income people.  The National Low Income Housing Coalition launched this campaign together with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Children’s HealthWatch, Make Room, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and with a steering committee of partners including the Children’s Defense Fund, Community Catalyst, Food Research and Action Center, NAACP, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Community Health Centers, National Education Association, and UnidosUS. 

The driving idea behind this campaign is that a diverse range of stakeholders from various sectors will be necessary to make affordable housing a national priority and to effectuate federal policies that protect and expand affordable housing.  The federal government already plays a significant role in addressing the housing needs of low-income families, but it is not nearly strong enough considering the magnitude of the problem.  Today, only 1 out of 4 eligible households receive the help they need.  Contrary to the myths and false stereotypes, only 6% of households receiving housing aid are “work able” but not employed.  The problem is that wages are much too low to afford a decent rental home without financial help.  In fact, there are only 12 counties in America where a full-time worker on minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom rental.

The time to act is now: the housing affordability problem has reached disastrous levels; federal housing assistance is chronically under-funded and faces unprecedented threats in the current political climate; housing advocates are increasingly realizing that they can’t do this work alone; many other sectors are increasingly realizing that housing is inextricably linked to their own priorities and goals; and the research continues to mount that housing is fundamental to nearly every social and economic outcome that matters to our country.

Perhaps surprisingly, I personally arrived at these conclusions through my experiences in the education sector – specifically, as the Chief of Transformation and Innovation for the Dallas Independent School District.  There, I became convinced that many of the challenges we face in the education field – low college readiness, yawning achievement gaps, inequitable funding – actually have their roots in housing-related issues.  Like most major cities, Dallas is experiencing a growing affordable housing problem and has long experienced crushing levels of residential segregation, which we know lies at the core of educational inequity.

Through my time on the ground in Dallas, I became convinced that, as scholar Richard Rothstein said, “School reform cannot succeed without housing reform.”  I remain an enthusiastic supporter of many important education efforts, such as raising academic standards, increasing funding for high-poverty schools, investing in professional development and better teacher pay, and focusing on early childhood development.  But still more is needed.  As former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Paul Reville, said: “Even when optimized with high expectations, strong curriculum, and expert instruction, today’s schools have not proven powerful enough by themselves to compensate for the disadvantages associated with poverty.”

Research consistently shows that achievement differences between students are more attributable to out-of-school factors than in-school factors.  After all, children spend the vast majority of their time in and around their homes.  We know that poor children in affordable housing do better on tests than poor children in unaffordable housing – if rent doesn’t eat up parents’ hard-earned paychecks, they can more easily invest in their child’s development.  We know that poor children who constantly change schools due to housing instability struggle academically and suffer later as adults.  And we know that affordable housing options located in “high-opportunity areas” can lead to mixed-income neighborhoods, which, in turn, can lead to mixed-income schools that consistently produce strong academic and social outcomes for affluent and low-income students alike.

If you look at my résumé, you might see someone who “switched” from the education field to the housing field.  But I reject this notion.  For me, the fight for affordable housing is also very much a fight to advance student success.  It’s time to re-think the artificial organizational silos we’ve created.  The complexities of modern-day challenges require us to be more fluid, to look beyond our respective lanes, to acknowledge our interdependencies, and to implement solutions together.  These issues are too complicated and difficult for one sector to solve alone.  Education advocates ARE housing advocates – and the same could be said for health care advocates, civil rights advocates, veterans advocates, anti-poverty advocates, and many more.

That’s a big reason why I joined this multi-sector housing campaign.  I am enormously grateful for the chance to lead the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, and I look forward to working with our stakeholders to ensure that low-income people have access to safe, decent, affordable housing in neighborhoods where everyone has equitable opportunities to thrive.

Learn more about the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign at: www.opportunityhome.org

One Boston Family Gets New Opportunities Thanks to the RAFT Program

By Kat Feliciano, Metro Housing|Boston

 

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Kat Feliciano, Housing Supports Operations Administrator at Metro Housing | Boston

People often ask me to describe the typical family that we assist. In truth, no families are alike. Circumstance, personalities, challenges, disabilities, job prospects – all of these lead to very different stories.

After experiencing homelessness and living in her car with her two children, Sharon was grateful to have finally found a place to live in late 2017. That feeling of gratefulness would not last, however. The owner of the building that Sharon and her family were staying failed inspection for code violations. The landlord was given multiple chances to bring the apartment to code but failed to do so. Rather than making the necessary repairs, he told Sharon she needed to move out. 

With Christmas approaching, Sharon struggled to find a safe and decent place to live and was fearful that she would be spending the holiday in her car. When she visited our offices in mid-December, I knew I had to act quickly because she was just weeks away from being evicted.

When families are about to be evicted from their homes, or when they are behind on rent or electricity or heat, or when they need help to move to a place near family to help care for a sick family member – while their stories are different – there is one solution they have in common.

Since 2013, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has funded a homelessness prevention program called RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition). Metro Housing|Boston administers the program for 29 communities in eastern Massachusetts. In 2017, we helped 1,474 families – some like Sharon’s – stay securely in their homes.

I filed an emergency RAFT application and Sharon was approved. I was able to get her moved into a better apartment with her and children before Christmas with an apartment that was habitable for her and didn’t put her at a health risk.  The RAFT funding was able to cover the first and last month rent, plus security deposit.

The help that Sharon and her family needed is among the most common among families since the program’s beginning – first and last month’s rent and security deposits – behind rental arrearages. Statistics suggest that Sharon won’t need RAFT assistance again – fewer than 4% of families who received RAFT last year had received assistance the previous year.


Who qualifies for RAFT?

To qualify, your income should be at or less than 50 percent of the area median income ($46,550 for a family of three in Boston) and have a dependent child under the age of 21 or are pregnant and the head of household.

Reasons can include:

  • Eviction. Have received a court summons or are already involved in the court process.
  • Foreclosure. Notice from mortgage lender stating their intent to foreclose.
  • Doubled-up at a friend or family member’s house and have been asked to leave.
  • Violence or abuse in the household.
  • Utilities are at risk of being shut off or have been shut off.

I was very happy that I was able to get such a quick turnaround for a family that thought they were never going to be able to move because they couldn’t afford first and last month rent plus security, even while saving every last penny.


Read More About Metro Housing|Boston’s Homelessness Prevention Program at: http://nlihc.org/article/field

A Student Message on United for Homes

By Isaiah Fleming-Klink, NLIHC Field Intern

Isaiah Fleming-Klink

Since 2011 the United for Homes (UFH) campaign has been building support for a policy solution that addresses the housing and homelessness crises in America through mortgage interest deduction (MID) reform. Thus far, we have the support of over 2,300 national, state, and local organizations as well as government officials. Moreover, we have the support of thousands of individuals from all over the country, including from all 435 Congressional districts. As we continue to build support from these dedicated advocates of the campaign, we hope to engage with a new source of endorsers: young, college students.

As established and emerging leaders, thinkers, and advocates across the country, we believe engaging with college students is an important avenue for growth in the UFH campaign. More than that, we see endorsing the UFH campaign as another channel for educating and empowering leaders in college to take action on issues surrounding housing, homelessness, and poverty both nationally and in their local communities. Younger voices with fresh ideas and perspectives will inevitably strengthen our work as advocates for housing equality.

As NLIHC’s field intern and a current student at Georgetown University, I’ve been excited to encourage fellow students to join the UFH campaign.  So far, we have the endorsements of several key organizations at my school: the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) Executive, College Democrats (pending), GUSA Senate (pending), Black Student Alliance, and Georgetown University Women of Color. We’re in the process of reaching out to other schools and organizations in the DMV area—including George Washington University, American University, Howard University, Catholic University, and the University of Maryland—and plan to start branching out nationally in the coming weeks.

If you or someone you know is involved in an organization on a college or university campus across the country that might be interested in endorsing the UFH campaign, please reach out to us at outreach@nlihc.org, outreachintern2@nlihc.org, or jsaucedo@nlihc.org. We’d also encourage folks to check out our recent UFH webinar, Back to School—Campus Activism and the United for Homes Campaign.

Housing Forum Raises Valid Concerns Through Thoughtful Discussion

By Kate M. Kelly

Housing Forum Takeaway: A Home is the Center of Life and Must be Part of New Jersey’s Story

On Thursday, October 12, 2017, a Public Policy Forum on eviction in NJ with Princeton sociologist Dr. Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted, and U.S. Senator Cory Booker (NJ-D) was held at Drew University in Madison, NJ. The forum was held at The Concert Hall on Drew’s campus. Over 300 people attended the event and it received television and newspaper coverage.

On October 16, 2017, NorthJersey.com, the USA Today owned papers including the Record and the Daily Record published an editorial on the housing forum “Drew forum on housing raises valid concerns.”

“Public forums like the one at Drew engage both the general public and students – our future leaders – in thoughtful discussion about a statewide crisis that must be resolved. More is needed.”

Dr. Desmond said, “The house is the center of life. It’s part of the America story.”

“It must be part of the New Jersey story as well.”

“As Michael Izzo reports, in 2016, there were 3,054 evictions out of 44,651 rentals in Morris County, meaning 7 percent of Morris County tenants were evicted. That wasn’t even the highest eviction rate in New Jersey.” In fact, Essex County had the eviction rate of 25%.

In his remarks, Dr. Desmond told the audience “We have the richest society with the worst poverty.”

This divide between the rich and poor is a growing issue in New Jersey.

“New Jersey is an expensive place to live for the middle class, which struggles with staggering property tax bills. The battle is harder for low-income families living paycheck to paycheck with no cushion for even small emergencies, as Booker said. And the Trump administration is not focusing on the needs of the poor.”

“The tax code rewards wealth, and we’re told that will help the poor, and that’s just lies,” U.S. Senator Cory Booker told the audience.

“The opportunity to address the affordable crisis exists at both the state and federal level.”

Monarch Housing agrees with editorial’s conclusions.

“Clearly, the federal government must do more in providing housing vouchers that allow low-income families to pay 30 percent of their income toward a home with the federal government picking up the difference. But on the state and local levels, we also must do more to reduce the cost of rental units.”

Sponsoring the forum were Monarch Housing, NJ Policy Perspective, the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ, the Anti-Poverty Network of NJ, the Supportive Housing Association of NJBridges Outreach, the Mental Health Association in NJ, the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Homeless Solutions and the Drew University Center for Civic Engagement.

The Public Policy Forum was underwritten by a grant from the Investors Foundation.
Follow the event on Twitter with the hashtag #EvictionNJForum


This article was originally published on October 19, 2017 at: https://monarchhousing.org/2017