Pushing Back Against the Landlords: Low-Income Residents and the Struggle for Legal Counsel



Letitia James speaking at an Affordable Housing Rally in Washington Heights.

Homelessness in New York City is overwhelmingly caused by evictions, and on any given night, there are 58,000 people in homeless shelters, 30,000 of them being children. There were over 25,000 evictions last year, and over half of them were tenants in rent-stabilized housing. Many tenants walk away from litigation feeling intimidated and overwhelmed by the process when, all along, many of the evictions are preventable. The system is stacked in favor of landlords despite New York being known as a “tenant friendly city.” Ninety percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, while ninety percent of tenants are not. These statistics were provided recently by Mark Levine, a New York City Council member. He was joined by Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President, council members Vanessa Gibson and Helen Rosenthal, and Letitia James, the NYC Public Advocate, at a housing meeting on 21 April, at Goddard Riverside Center. James added, “Greed over need: it’s just not right!”

Finally, a turning point is near. In June, the New York City Council will vote on an amendment to the city’s administrative code (Title 27) which aims to provide legal counsel for low income tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment, or foreclosure proceedings. This amendment (called Int. 214 for short) will create a new political position – a Civil Justice Coordinator who “shall be responsible for establishing and implementing a program for the provision of legal services for eligible individuals with respect to covered proceedings.” Over forty council members are on board, but more are needed to send a unified message – this is long overdue and overwhelmingly supported by the council. This action is not an electoral matter, but simply an amendment to the administrative code, requiring a majority of city council members to support it. The CUNY Graduate Center community can help by contacting city council representatives with a message – support Int. 214, the Right to Counsel (providing attorneys/legal representation for low-income residents).

I am a graduate of the CUNY Graduate Center (Classics, 2012) and also a tenant in rent-stabilized housing. In my current building, I have witnessed the sad phenomenon of a landlord’s power over a tenant – immigrants afraid of going to court who simply leave when threatened, less-educated or under-confident people who take paltry buyouts from rent-stabilized units not knowledgeable of their rights to stay, many units lost to rent-stabilization and now market rate rentals, and frivolous legal proceedings designed to harass rent-stabilized tenants (I have experienced the last one myself).

I live in a building that is currently undergoing a vast renovation project and the results have been disheartening. The Parc Lincoln Hotel was built in 1929 on 75th Street, near Amsterdam. It is officially designated at a Class B Hotel, SRO. SRO stands for Single Resident Occupancy. This type of extremely modest housing was once very common in the city, especially on the Upper West Side, providing reasonably-priced housing to generations of workers, students, and artists. Now, a handful of SROs remain, largely rented to government agencies for transitional housing programs for former convicted persons and persons out of rehabilitation of various sorts. An owner of such a building, especially on the Upper West Side, cannot help but be motivated by the heady lure of real estate prices in Manhattan. Why keep low-paying grunts like me in tiny units when the units can be vacated, combined, and renovated into sporty one-bedrooms with a great view? I live on the eleventh floor and have an excellent view of the San Remo towers, located on Central Park West. Each floor of the building, at full occupancy, once housed over twenty residents. My floor is now occupied by five tenants, the rent-stabilized holdouts. Most of the rooms are now construction sites, billowing with dust and debris.

Mark Levine assured the assembled group that New York will make an investment by passing this important amendment, which will offset the $38,000 USD yearly cost of providing a homeless family with shelter. He added that homeless people make use of emergency rooms at hospitals for routine care, and transportation must be provided for children in homeless shelters so that they may attend school. Hopefully, forty million dollars can be secured to provide attorneys and paralegals to represent low and middle-income tenants in housing court.

I know how important rent-stabilization is. I could not afford my student loan payments, credit payments, and market-rate rent simultaneously without rent-stabilization. This blessing has kept me in my home, however modest, of nearly eighteen years.. The space is approximately twelve by fourteen feet, with no bathroom in the unit itself. The bathroom was the archaic “water closet,” located on the hallway and shared by several tenants. Each floor had a “water closet” available to tenants with no bathroom in their living units. Now, only my floor, out of sixteen total, has a shared bathroom, and only because I have refused to leave my tiny living space. The plan to connect my room with the adjoining room is obvious, it was once connected and will easily be reconnected after I leave, creating a one-bedroom to be rented for over two grand a month.

Is New York no longer a place for people like me, a graduate trying earnestly to pay off my student loan? I take advantage of my low rent by trying to pay extra each month, so that I don’t have to perpetually payback the principal and the interest on my student loan. My students at Hostos Community College often present me with their housing court papers, asking to be excused for missing multiple classes. Two students admitted to me that they were officially homeless. I wonder how many others suffer in shame, never willing to admit to their teachers that they are on the brink of eviction and utter desperation.

City council members who have not yet lent their names to this amendment must be encouraged to do so. Graduate Center faculty and students who teach can use this opportunity to engage students in something that truly affects the majority of New Yorkers by encouraging them to contact their representatives to see that Int. 214 passes.

For more information, people can visit the Right to Counsel at http://www.righttocounselnyc.org.

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