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. 

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.

When Academics Meets Real-Life

By Lindsey Otto, Communications & Graphic Design Intern

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From left to right: Katherine Randall, Research Intern; Aubrey Kearney, Policy Intern; and Lindsey Otto, Communications/Graphic Design Intern

When I started as the Communications/Graphic Design intern at NLIHC, I had no idea what to expect. Finishing my first year at the University of Arizona, I decided to jump right in and spend my summer getting some real world experience in my field of study. I am currently a Communications and Studio Art student and while I have many years of graphic design experience, I had barely dipped my toes into the world of communications. I am originally from northern Virginia so my search for summer positions started in D.C. When I came across NLIHC I thought, what better way to cultivate these skills than by working towards social justice in the heart of the nation’s capital? The more I researched the organization, the easier it was to see how absolutely dedicated they are to something that was worth fighting for (doesn’t everyone deserve a safe and affordable place to call home?). Needless to say, I was eager for the chance to see the concepts I’d learned in my courses come to life and I am so grateful for the opportunity that NLIHC gave me to do so.

I began my nine-week position in the midst of the 2017 Out of Reach launch, their largest annual research report. I was tasked with making various infographics from this research and the statistics I was provided with from the report, quite frankly, shocked me. I had little knowledge of the struggle that average Americans go through just to pay rent, let alone the magnitude of that struggle. It’s a heartbreaking reality for hardworking people all over the country. So while I had initially expected to learn about color swatches and media correspondence, I learned a lot about the crisis that persists in this country as well. Working at NLIHC has not only provided me with insight into potential career directions but also with a fresh perspective on the immense importance of being socially aware and active.

From the very beginning, I absorbed all I could about the nuances of communications and design. I was welcomed by a spirited office full of people passionate about what they do. Every day was something new, from creating promotional posters to updating various websites to scheduling social media posts. It is a dynamic atmosphere and what I’ve enjoyed most is working collaboratively with members of the team, specifically in preparation for the Our Homes, Our Voices campaign promoting the National Housing Week of Action. For this effort, I was able to create promotional posters, rally posters, graphics, and other images to promote the various events, which aided more organizations from across the country to jump on board with the campaign. It was incredibly exciting to see so many different people from so many different places come together (as well as reusing/retweeting my designs to do so!).

In sum, I am eager to delve back into my studies with such a valuable experience under my belt. NLIHC has equipped me with so many skills that I fully intend on carrying with me into my future pursuits. Yet as my internship quickly approaches its end, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that when a passion for people is met with a dedication to advocacy, monumental change is not too far behind.


Lindsey interned with NLIHC from late June to early August.

My Rewards as an NLIHC Summer Intern

By Bianca Guerrero, NLIHC Field and Communications Intern

My goal this summer was to learn what the affordable housing crisis looks like across the United States and to see what communities and organizations are doing to address it. After three months interning with the Tenant Protection Unit, a New York State agency that protects rent-regulated residents, I knew I wanted to continue working on housing issues. Dipping my feet in advocacy and organizing on a national level after graduating from college seemed like a good next step and an internship with NLIHC offered just that.

Working at an organization that centers around extremely low income communities have been very rewarding, especially in a political climate that jeopardizing very poor communities’ wellbeing. As a communications intern, I got a firm grasp on what the organization is fighting for. I saw our values and messaging spread during, for example, press calls with Rep. Keith Ellison when NLIHC’s 2017 Out of Reach report was released. Incorporating data from our reports in tweets about HUD hearings on the Trump budget and the #OurHomesOurVoices campaign familiarized me with just how pressing the crisis is. I learned that organizing is truly a team effort. Pulling state-specific outlets from media lists, tracking reporter contacts, and reaching out to civic engagement platforms for the communications team was critical to making sure the National Week of Action was a success.

The field team gave me understanding of what it means to organize. Researching issues and writing articles for Memo to Members to highlight the work and success of our state partners in Minnesota, Vermont, Illinois, and Georgia taught me what obstacles other communities were facing, the solutions they devised to address them, and the work it took to achieve said solutions. Diving into the Advocates Guide’s information on housing programs gave me a sense of what resources are at stake in the Trump and Congressional budgets. Cleaning up membership lists, updating contact information, and checking our website links were also part of my internship. The field team always made clear why this less glamorous work was critical to improving its advocacy efforts.

I feel very grateful for the opportunity to work at NLIHC. This experience has equipped me to continue working on affordable housing issues back home in New York City and has also helped me become a better team player. Lisa, Sarah, James, and Joey have served as great examples. I always felt comfortable asking questions and voicing concerns or support for ideas. Their instructions and goals were always clear and they let me know my work was important. NLIHC’s location in Washington, D.C. was great because it gave me access to webinars and information sessions hosted by the Center for American Progress, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and Urban Institute. I was able to learn what other organizations are doing to further the fight against homelessness and to protect the LGBTQ community, women, and others in this issue area. I do feel like I accomplished my goal of learning what the affordable housing crisis looks like across the country and what folks are doing to end it. I’m excited to take what I’ve learned back home!


Bianca Guerrero graduated in May from Columbia University as a political science major. Next year she will be an Urban Fellow with New York City government. She is passionate about cities, and more specifically the experiences of low income immigrant communities in urban housing.

Housing Advocates Gather in D.C. to Protest Trump’s Budget

By Benjamin Miller, NLIHC field intern

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NAHT protesters in front of Trump International Hotel

Housing advocates from around the country gathered outside of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on June 27 to protest President Trump’s proposed FY’18 budget. The budget includes a $7.7 billion or 15% cut to HUD and a complete elimination of the national Housing Trust Fund, the Community Development Block Grant program, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, among others. The rally was coordinated by the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) and co-sponsored by Empower D.C. Most at the rally were also attendees at NAHT’s annual conference in Washington, and many are themselves public housing residents or recipients of other federal housing assistance programs, in addition to other federal safety net programs that the president’s budget proposes slashing.

The budget proposal would be devastating to the millions of many low income households who benefit from HUD-administered housing programs. Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, spoke at the rally and expressed agitation by the budget proposal. Pointing to the history of this moment, Hustings noted that the proposed slashing of the HUD budget has not happened since 1981, with the first federal budget implemented by former President Ronald Reagan—and the clear and immediate impact of that budget was a nationwide surge in homelessness.

Many of the day’s speakers shared the belief that housing is an essential human right. Charlotte Delgado, a board member of NAHT said in her speech, “Donald Trump has demolished the right to have a decent life…Housing is a basic human right.” Speakers also addressed the fact that the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, yet our federal budgets year after year still do not make housing accessible and available to all of our nation’s most vulnerable families.

Another spokesperson for NAHT said “You can’t get rid of poor people, you have to make poor people equal people…you can’t trap people in poverty, you have to give us a path out.” The same NAHT representative stated that all of the paths out of poverty starts with a stable home.

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Another point that was echoed in speeches and protest signs was that our multimillionaire president is himself a public housing resident. In fact, he does not pay any portion of his income toward the cost of living in the White House—an ironic observation, given the protest’s location in front of the gilded-sign reading “Trump International Hotel.” This point was intended to highlight that one piece of the president’s budget proposal includes a policy change whereby public housing residents would move from paying 30% to 35% of their already limited monthly income rent. In total, approximately 50 attended Tuesday morning’s rally, after which NAHT conference attendees traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue for an afternoon of lobby meetings on Capitol Hill with Members of Congress.