Right To Counsel a Victory for New York City Tenants

Every elected official knows constituents whose stories they will never forget. One of the most lasting for me is of a woman – I’ll call her Maria – who came to my office in tears after receiving an eviction order. She had been injured stepping on a broken stair in her apartment building, lost her job as a result, and was ultimately taken to court by a notoriously aggressive landlord for being unable to pay her rent. Without the money to afford a lawyer, she was forced to represent herself. Predictably, she ended up like thousands of other New Yorkers, forced from her home.

There’s hardly a member of the New York City Council who couldn’t share a similar story. That’s why today we will vote to make New York the first city in the nation to guarantee free legal representation for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction in housing court. The bill we are voting on today – Intro 214b – is expected to pass by a wide margin, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has already signaled his support. That means that beginning today, no low-income city resident will lose a home because he or she can’t afford a lawyer.

City Expands Services as More Become Homeless, Even With a Job

Between intermittent drizzle and drenching downpours, social workers climbed an embankment just off what they called the “zigzag” — an entanglement of roads and exits from the Henry Hudson Parkway and Riverside Drive in northern Manhattan.

They were looking for a crudely built wooden loft bed wedged into concrete so that it was suspended above the ground and three feet or so beneath Riverside Drive.

Today’s Read: De Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan Still Falls Short for Poorest NYers

The citywide housing affordability crisis is a major force driving near-record numbers of families and individuals into homelessness. Tonight, nearly 23,000 children will sleep in shelters, even though more than a third of homeless families include someone who is employed. These families are the casualties of a housing market in which incomes have failed to keep pace with skyrocketing rents. New Yorkers at the lowest end of the income spectrum experience almost universal housing insecurity, and many are just one unforeseen health crisis or layoff away from losing their homes and having to turn to a shelter system already bursting at the seams.

In an effort to mitigate the housing crisis, Mayor de Blasio embarked on a plan in 2014 to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. The administration announced last week that it was on track to meet that goal, having financed 77,651 units over the past three years. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those “affordable” units are within reach of the poorest New Yorkers, and the number set aside for households seeking an escape from the shelter system comes nowhere near the number needed to meet unprecedented need.

The City cannot effectively tackle the homelessness crisis until it brings all of its permanent housing solutions to a level matching the scale of the problem. In addition to using Federally-funded permanent housing resources such as NYCHA and Section 8, the City must rectify the glaring disparity between the Mayor’s affordable housing plan and the magnitude of the homelessness crisis. The Coalition for the Homeless has called on Mayor de Blasio to create a new capital development program to finance construction of at least 10,000 additional units of affordable housing for homeless households over the next five years.

Gothamist’s Emma Whitford spoke to advocates about their concerns that the Mayor’s housing plan is inadequate because it does too little to provide permanent affordable homes for New Yorkers with the most acute housing needs, including those who are homeless:

“The good news is that because of a lot of pressure from advocates they have included more deeply affordable units,” said Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge at the Law Reform Unit of The Legal Aid Society. “That’s great. The bad part is that they are still devoting numbers to people who don’t really need it as much.”

Advocates have long argued that City Hall’s benchmarks for affordability, recently deepened with an additional $2 billion investment set to kick in next year, represent too little too late. Before Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan was implemented, the city was short 550,000 affordable apartments for families that make less than $42,000 per year. Meanwhile, NYC’s population is booming. The supply and demand imbalance is obvious every time a new lottery opens. And thanks to loopholes in the existing rent laws, the Alliance for Tenant Power estimates that the city could lose 100,000 affordable units by 2019.

Goldiner, the Legal Aid Society attorney, challenged City Hall to be more aggressive in helping NYC’s record number of homeless families. To date, de Blasio’s plan has secured 6,533 apartments for this demographic, plus 550 of a promised 15,000 units of supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers with specific health needs. The city could invest more in NYCHA units, she said, which are currently excluded from the city’s Housing New York preservation efforts. “If we don’t preserve these units, we are going to lose them.”

Goldiner urged City Hall to work more creatively with Section 8 holders to help families navigate a biased and brutal housing market in the short term, while they wait for new housing to come online.

When it comes to vouchers, “You can’t just say, ‘Here you go, just go out in the market.'”

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