From Poverty to Opportunity Symposium: Helping Families Advocate for Safe and Adequate Housing

By: Pekhna Singh

From Poverty to Opportunity Symposium Series Part 1

Panelists:
Joanna Sorocki, Program Director at Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council
Michael McGhee, Program Coordinator at the Harlem Community Justice Center, Center for Court Innovation
Kathryn Neilson, Program Director at Legal Services NYC-Bronx
Stephanie Rudolph, Attorney with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center

Moderator: Andrew Scherer, Professor at New York Law School

On August 12, 2014, New York Law School hosted a symposium entitled “From Poverty to Opportunity.” This symposium explored a variety of different issues that those plagued by poverty in an urban environment such as New York City face each day, and how non-profit service providers, experts in the legal field, community advocate groups, and other professionals can help.

In the panel entitled “Helping Families Advocate for Safe and Adequate Housing” the panelists briefly described the organizations they work for, cases and issues they deal with often, and the current state of the housing market for those seeking affordable housing.

 

Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council

Ms. Joanna Sorocki and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC) primarily represent low-income families, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities in rent stabilized housing in the Ridgewood/Bushwick area of Brooklyn and Queens, New York. She manages a team that canvasses the neighborhood and reports its findings and current housing trends back to her and the organization.

Currently, she and her team have seen that the Bushwick/Ridgewood neighborhoods have been subject to extreme gentrification, and as a result, many low-income families and disabled and elderly people have been forced to leave their homes and relocate because of landlord interference and harassment. In one particular case, the landlord partly demolished apartments lived in by tenants who would not leave their rent stabilized homes. Additionally, in gentrifying neighborhoods, landlords have been offering tenants buyouts, or options to leave their apartments in exchange for money or other considerations. This way, the landlords are able to begin renovations more quickly and lease the units for more money to wealthier tenants.

Though some of these landlords engage in practices that are illegal, offering buyouts to tenants is not.  So the organization, when appropriate, encourages tenants to start an anti-buyout campaign, which may consist of displaying signs in the windows encouraging other tenants to reject buyouts, and other activities. Additionally, many landlords do not know the rent stabilization laws and take many actions (sometimes illegal ones) to force tenants out of their homes. Just as often the tenants subject to these actions do not know their rights and do move out of their apartments, though the process may be entirely illegal. The organization focuses heavily on tenant education in order to help tenants push back against illegal or coercive landlord actions and behaviors.

 

Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center

Ms. Stephanie Rudolph and the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center (UJC) primarily partner with grassroots community groups to represent the interests of the larger community. Unlike the RBSCC, the UJC doesn’t have an established team that explores the neighborhood and reports back. Instead they go directly to the community groups that are already established and actively representing people’s needs. Generally, the UJC is heavily involved with community groups in all five boroughs of New York City and works on consumer, housing, and transactional matters. Specifically, Ms. Rudolph works in the housing department on the most common types of cases; HP actions, which are actions that a tenant can bring against his or her landlord when that landlord fails to provide basic services such as heating and hot water, and other such cases that require injunctive relief.

In HP actions, there are often two types of cases; one involving buildings that are in foreclosure and therefore basic necessities are not being maintained (e.g. heat and hot water), and the other involving landlords who are refusing to provide basic necessities to force certain tenants to leave their homes. In one particular case, a landlord installed an electric heater in a younger, wealthier, Caucasian male’s apartment, and not in the other tenants’ apartments.  The UJC tries to use remedies available through actions in housing court, but it is very difficult to prove such harassment is intentional, discriminatory, or designed specifically to displace tenants. As a result, the UJC encourages tenants to seek other means of relief, such as engaging in mediation. Additionally, many of these cases can take anywhere from six months to one year to resolve, and during the course of litigation, other problems may develop in the building such as gas leaks and pest problems. This often means that the tenants must file new cases against the landlord and go through the entire legal process again. This can be costly, ineffective, and inconvenient for tenants. Many of them do move, and many landlords escape liability.

 

Legal Services NYC-Bronx

Ms. Kathryn Neilson and Legal Services NYC-Bronx provide civil legal services to New York City residents in areas such as education, disability, family law, immigration, and housing. Housing is the LSNY’s largest practice area and mostly represents clients in eviction defense cases, holdover proceedings, nonpayment of rent cases, and Section 8 cases. The largest number of cases deal with rent increases, and chronic, non-pay, holdover proceedings.

LSNY advises all people working with tenants to consult the rent registration histories of a specific unit or building in order to document unfair treatment by the landlord and challenge rent increases effectively. Additionally, tenants should raise the condition of the apartment along with the rent increase, but ideally, tenants should raise the issues with the landlord and housing authorities as they come, not after a rent increase has been issued. Often, it is in the tenants’ favor to document each thing that should have been challenged, even if it has not been, in order to show that they are willing to negotiate and reach an amicable solution.

 

Harlem Community Justice Center

Michael McGhee is primarily involved with the Harlem Community Justice Center, with the Center for Court Innovation. Mr. McGhee runs the help center, which is a one-stop place where any litigant who is not represented by counsel can get help with legal or administrative matters. Many of those who use the help center as a resource seek help with housing matters, or more specifically, eviction prevention, rent overcharge, and securing Section 8 housing. There are several people working with this organization who deal only with housing problems, and so far, the help center has been extremely successful in educating individuals, and helping to solve their housing problems.

 

Advice for Tenants

After the panelists made their introductions, the moderator asked a series of questions that primarily dealt with the best course of action tenants should take in order to obtain relief. The panelists advised that first and foremost, the tenant(s) with problems should always call 311 in order to report any unsafe conditions. This helps the tenant and his or her counsel keep track of all of the issues that arise for a particular unit, as well as develop a timeline of events. As always, the more concrete information and evidence a party has, the easier the process is. Ms. Rudolph stated that litigation might not be the best way to get results, though this may be counterintuitive to some people. She stated that the law often does not provide a means of relief. For example, since buyouts are not illegal, going to court to prevent a buyout will likely not result in any injunctive relief. When landlords are using techniques that are legal, but still undermine morale and rent-stabilization, going to the media, encouraging solidarity among tenants, tenant groups, and community members can provide much better results. Exploring different tactics that put pressure on government officials, corporate landlords, and other administrative agencies to correct behaviors often results in better outcomes for tenants and tenant groups than a jury or a judge can provide. Additionally, the media is often very effective for “shaming” landlords and/or government executives.

The panelists also discussed the option of tenants repairing problems themselves and then deducting such costs from their rent. The panelists advised that the best way to do this is to put one hundred percent of the rent in an escrow account, and then ask a housing court judge for rent abatement. This shows good faith and likely prevents the tenants from ending up on a tenant “blacklist”. A tenant blacklist is a list that names every tenant who has ever been sued in housing court. The tenant’s name remains on that list for about seven years. This list is analogous to a credit report.  You can get your name removed, but the process is tedious, difficult, and time consuming. As a result, it may be impractical to ask public service groups to help tenants have their name removed from this list. Additionally, some tenants aren’t even aware that a blacklist exists, nor do they have the wherewithal to remove themselves from this list. Sometimes, a tenant’s name can be removed via stipulation in a settlement, but often times this can delay a case. Also, doing so may not be worth the effort if the tenant had already previously been sued in housing court.

 

The session closed with some final remarks regarding children who are affected by such issues, and information on different types of community education and outreach programs that each organization hosts. Please check each group’s respective website for more information about how to get help from or get involved with these organizations.