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. 

Growing Up With and Without Housing Assistance: The Backstory Behind Rachel Robinson’s Advocacy

By Rachel Robinson, Neighbors United for Progress Social Media Director & Housing Advocate Advisor

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When you live in low income housing or communities, sometimes you get lucky but sometimes you don’t. Growing up poor, my family moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, from hotel to motel like it was normal. My siblings and I felt like Child Protective Services (CPS) were our friend when we knew they were not. My neighborhoods had a lot of drama, gun and other violence, and drug activity. We resorted to handling issues in the ‘hood or within the projects because police would most likely treat us like suspects. These and other conditions of my experiences with low income housing are why I became a housing advocate.

Living with my brothers and grandmother on the outskirts of Austin, Texas was a blessing. Oak Hill, the family-oriented neighborhood we called home, was beautiful, full of playgrounds, schools, and stores. The community had plenty of resources and families had back yards. Oak Hill was a low income community at its finest: the crime rate was low and use of drugs was rare there.

In the 1990s, my grandmother decided she wanted to move into public housing in Bouldin Creek, a neighborhood closer to the inner city. While we didn’t have much privacy due to monthly check-ins from the housing authority, we did have access to the city and to bus routes. Bouldin Creek turned out to be very different from Oak Hill: it was in one of the most violent neighborhoods in south Austin. Rapes, gang activity, drunk driving, and fights were common. However, there was a bright side: with our new address I was able to enroll in a prestigious school where I flourished as a competitive student.

Winter brought tough times for my family. My grandma couldn’t take care of us anymore due to losing her job, so my siblings and I went to live with my mom, who struggled with drug problems. She lived in an abandoned hotel without lights, water, or working toilets. Worried for my brothers, I did everything under the sun to make money to provide school clothes, hot food, and other necessities. My mother is beautiful and smart, but drugs took over her life. CPS interviewed us constantly but never removed us from our mother. While we did not want to be taken away, what we were going through was not right.

My mother eventually ended up in jail, so my family was separated and displaced once again. My aunt took me into her home in a trailer park that felt like the projects.  I attended the poorest and most embarrassing school I have ever been in: it had bugs, holes in the walls, and textbooks in dire condition. In the ninth grade, I ended up getting pregnant. Teen mom was added to the list of labels already applied to me:  black, woman, crack baby, welfare and food-stamp user, a prostitute. I felt like these titles would never change unless I changed them, so I did. I got an apartment, won custody of my child, and eventually graduated with two kids.

Later, I moved to Mason Manor, one of the most dangerous and violent projects in Texas. The living conditions weren’t great: there was a lot of rust, roaches, maintenance issues, faulty air conditioning, and a host of other problems. We lived there for three weeks before moving to live with family. Eventually, we moved into a market-rate apartment in another poor area. This apartment was infested with centipedes, roaches, bees, and other critters. While I didn’t want to live there, we stayed for two years.

We moved to a duplex run by a slumlord, where roaches were embedded into the closets, doors, and any opening or cracks. The windows lacked screens and didn’t lock; the driveway was in awful shape. The tub filled with backflow from the sewer and toilet, so some days we couldn’t take a bath. One day, the breaker caught fire and we lost power in half the house for about two months.

At 28 years old, I was homeless. My entire family of six was living in my suburban and on couches for nine months before finding help from the Foundation for the Homeless. They found a three-bedroom, one and a half bath home with utilities paid for and rent of $1,350 a month. It didn’t matter if we were in market-rate or public housing, we always felt like being low income was the issue. Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes we didn’t. The neighborhoods I lived in were usually drug infested and prone to violence. I was too scared to let my kids play outside and I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Our landlords rarely treated us with respect, convinced that they were giving us a hand out so we should pay our rent and be quiet.

At age 14, I learned that where I live is important. Escaping poverty would be hard, but I knew I had to try. I went to school and got a certification in Medical Billing & Coding.  I’m also a licensed hair stylist. Even so, people assume things because of my address in a low income neighborhood. I want more for my kids: I do not want them to live my childhood realities. They are why I am a housing advocate: I push for better affordable housing in hopes of changing their futures.


Rachel is now the social media director and housing advocate advisor of Neighbors United for Progress (NUP). NUP is a group of neighbors who came together to focus on the betterment of their community and to raise awareness in the areas of affordable housing, crime and safety, and youth development.

Read about NUP’s 2017 NLIHC Organizer Award nomination at: https://hfront.org/category/organizer-awards/ 

Spotlight on Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, NLIHC’s 2017 Organizing Award Nominee

By Mary Burke Rivers, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing executive director 

otrch 1Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) , the owner and manager of a low income housing site in the gentrifying Over-the-Rhine section of Cincinnati, was nominated for NLIHC’s 2017 Organizing Award for their impressive organizing and mobilization efforts, preventing the demolition of a neighborhood park and community public space.

OTRCH has a history of mobilizing the Cincinnati community. Since the 2006 merger of two local housing justice organizations, they have developed over 300 units of affordable housing, have managed over 400 units, and have saved 45 historical buildings from demolition. Over-the-Rhine is a diverse community that has experienced a dramatic loss of affordable housing while also experiencing a dramatic increase in up-scale housing. Neighborhood residents felt excluded from attempts at progress in the area and wanted stability.

In early 2015, OTRCH, its neighborhood Community Council and other residents learned of a plan working its way through the city to sell off 84,000 square feet of public land to a private developer for the purposes of constructing  21 high-end single family homes, in the otherwise dense, low income and mostly black and brown neighborhood. The plan included the demolition of current community assets—a public park and basketball courts where neighborhood kids play, and a community garden maintained by a neighborhood-based nonprofit—with no public input process with residents who would be deeply affected. OTRCH’s Children’s Creative Corner, the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Peaslee Neighborhood Center’s Agents of Change program together created their Keep Our Courts/Do Development Differently (KOC/DDD) campaign to convince city officials to abandon their proposed privatization and development plan, and to institute notions of equity and justice in future development efforts.

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The campaign earned the support of other organizations and movements, including the city’s chapter of Black Lives Matter. Activities of the campaign included public education and mobilization components; a neighborhood cookout, kid’s basketball tournament and block party at the public park and proposed development site; lobby visits with numerous public officials; and testimony before the city council by advocates, residents, and children who would be impacted by the demolition of their neighborhood park. KOC/DDD was successful in pressuring the City of Cincinnati to re-examine the terms of its exclusive development contract with the private, for-profit developer; as a result, the developer opted not to renew this contract. The city is now working to improve community input processes for more inclusive community preservation and development proposals in the future.

To learn more about OTRCH’s community mobilization and work on resident-centered developmental proposals, visit http://otrch.org and http://peasleecenter.org/agents-of-change/

Continuing the Fight on the Local Level: Views from NLIHC Organizing Award Recipients

By NPH Executive Director Amie Fishman and EBHO Executive Director Gloria Bruce 

Preface: The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) awarded its annual Organizing Award to the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) and the East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO) during its “2017 Housing Policy Forum: Advancing Solutions in a Changing Landscape” on April 3.

NPH and EBHO are honored to be recognized by NLIHC for our longstanding roles and partnerships initiating, supporting, and driving success for affordable housing investment policy via a number of local revenue measures in the San Francisco Bay Area this past fall.

We took on this work because we knew acting locally mattered. What we didn’t know at the time, but has become increasingly and devastatingly clear since Election Day, is just how vital local action on affordable housing would become. The following is our perspective on why it’s important to continue defending affordable housing policies on the national level, but we should also stay vigilant to drive progress locally.

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In 2011, California’s governor and legislature dissolved our state’s redevelopment agencies, cutting $1 billion annually in funding for housing for low-wage workers, seniors, people with disabilities and veterans. Coupled with federal cuts, some California counties experienced a reduction of 89% in affordable housing investment – all while housing needs continued to grow.

Advocates recognized that we needed to take control back into local hands. Working with elected and community leaders, NPH and EBHO worked to find local and regional opportunities to create affordable housing investments. Then, we looked within to identify unique opportunities to galvanize our affordable housing community, including building and mobilizing a robust resident engagement program.

Building up to the November 2016 election, our organizations worked with leaders, partners, members, residents, and community members to initiate, support, and win a number of local affordable housing funding measures to invest in the affordable housing opportunities and options our communities needed. Including our work on Measure A (Santa Clara County), Measure A1 (Alameda County), Measure K (San Mateo County), Measures KK and JJ (Oakland), and Measure U1 (Berkeley), we secured more than $2 billion new, urgently needed revenue to create affordable housing opportunities in our communities this past fall.

NPH worked with resident leaders across Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Alameda County to develop a voter registration and education program for affordable housing residents, including speaker trainings, distributing more than 11,000 voter materials in seven languages to affordable housing residents, and organizing member staff and residents to support campaigns directly through phone banking and precinct walking.

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EBHO resident leaders from affordable housing communities in Oakland made more than fifty presentations across the city and worked tirelessly to reach neighbors, friends, faith communities, and other local groups with the message to vote yes for affordable housing.

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Providing strategy, developing strong coalitions, fundraising, and organizing our communities proved well worth our efforts and an important step in driving solutions. We’re obviously proud of our work and honored by NLIHC’s recognition. But with more cuts coming from the federal level, it’s no time to rest on our laurels. Our commitment to advance inclusion, racial and economic equity in our communities is more important than ever.

Anyone following NLIHC is certainly aware of the new federal policies, proposals, and considerations that will impact our affordable housing work. Affordable housing advocates’ concerns include, but certainly, are not limited to:

  • The confirmation of Ben Carson as HUD Secretary. Carson has made on-record statements demonstrating his support for rolling back housing protections and policies;
  • President Trump’s executive orders. One of Trump’s first actions as president was to roll back an FHA mortgage loan policy that was intended to support young and moderate-income Americans seeking to become homeowners;
  • Uncertainty over tax reform under the Republican Congress, including disruptions to the tax credit market;
  • The “skinny budget” proposal which would cut more than $6 billion from HUD’s budget, down 13% from last year’s bare-bones budget — and down 15% from the funding level for FY17, resulting in more than 200,000 families, seniors, and people with disabilities who benefit from housing assistance becoming at immediate risk of homelessness;
  • The proposal to eliminate a number of important programs, including Community Development Block Grants and HOME Investment Partnerships, as well as dramatically reduce funding to other core programs that our communities rely on.

Any one of these bullets would cause concern. All together? It’s not an overstatement to recognize the direction of the federal administration as a direct attack on our ability to create thriving, inclusive and equitable neighborhoods.

We’re thankful to have national partners like NLIHC working hard to fight back against these cuts and harmful proposals, and to press HUD Secretary Ben Carson on commitments to HUD’s mission. We believe that local and regional organizations must support these efforts and do what we can do to bring voices from all over the country to support their strategies.

But, given the sheer enormity of current situations, it will take more than our status quo. It’s more important than ever that we push on our local and state leaders to defend our communities and find new solutions.

For those of us in blue states, it’s not enough for our local leaders to decry the federal administration’s actions – they must commit to take the actions they can to defend our most vulnerable communities, fight for affordable housing, and preserve our values.

Here in California, advocates are looking to local and state leadership to help defend our most vulnerable communities, fight for affordable housing, and protect our neighbors. To echo Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco), we know that California’s housing crisis existed before the Trump administration took office – but there is no doubt that this Presidency is exacerbating and inflaming the problem.

California, and especially the Bay Area, has long been known to lead ‘worst of’ lists when it comes to housing affordability and opportunities. But we’re proud of the work our communities have been doing to step up and emerge as leaders in finding solutions too. Affordable housing advocates are coming together to work closely and strategically in one voice, in a way like never before to make sure our leaders do their part in supporting the needs of our neighbors and the values of our communities.

For those of us in more conservative states, remind your elected officials that affordable housing is not a partisan issue: In fact, polling from Ipsos Public Affairs showed that more than 3 out of every 4 voters were more likely to support a candidate who made affordable housing a priority in government. In fact, a strong majority of Republican, Democrat, and Independent voters alike want to make affordable housing a core component of their party’s platforms.

Especially at this national moment, those of us working in cities and states across the nation need to push on decision makers to find local solutions to advance housing justice. Voters have demonstrated their unity behind affordable housing. Now, we should push on our local and state leaders to keep up the urgency and keep building on the movement. While we can’t give up on fighting at a national level, it’s more important than ever to look at local, regional, and state leaders in order to drive progress.

2017 Organizing Award Nominees Series

Neighbors United for Progress Empowers Austin Residents

By Sarah Jemison, Housing Advocacy Organizer

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Neighbors United for Progress (NUP), a resident-driven community leadership development project, has been nominated for this year’s 2017 Organizer Award for their adept community engagement in Austin, Texas.

In the past year, NUP has hosted 3 affordable housing forums engaging participants and informing them of their rights as residents. They also represent the interests of low income families at monthly Austin City Council Meetings, capitalizing on relationships with council members in order to best advocate for residents’ interests.

NUP’s work is extensive and aligns with NLIHC’s goals in a variety of ways. As noted in the nomination, “Through community conversations, bilingual housing workshops, training, and building relationships with city, state and national advocacy organizations and policymakers, NUP is furthering NLIHC’s mission to educate, organize, and advocate to ensure decent, affordable housing for everyone in the United States.”

To learn more about the NUP’s efforts to build the awareness and capacity of community members to navigate the issues and structures related to affordable housing, visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/NUPATX/ and their website at www.nupatx.org.