Ciara Ward was doing her laundry in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a recent Sunday afternoon. Ward, who lives around the corner from the laundromat, is fighting an eviction case brought by her landlord. Under a law passed last year, she has the right to free legal representation in housing court, but Ward said she only learned about that right when she went to housing court for the first time after receiving the eviction notice. “It would have been nice to have known about it beforehand,” she said. “It would have been nice to be able to talk to a lawyer before going to court.”
Like Ward, few people who live in the neighborhood have heard about the new law, known as Right to Counsel. And like her, many of them have faced eviction. In October, the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development released a detailed map of all evictions that took place in New York City in 2017. In most blocks of this rapidly gentrifying part of Bedford-Stuyvesant, at least one tenant was evicted last year. That’s why 11216 was one of Brooklyn’s three zip codes chosen for representation when Right to Counsel went into effect last year.
Tenant advocates, legal aid organizations and social entrepreneurs are working to get the word out about the Right to Counsel. Some are going door to door to do so. Others are using technology to inform tenants about their rights. A bill proposed in the City Council in September would help finance these efforts – and more.
One of the people doing the door knocking is Estefania Trujillo, a community organizer at the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, a group of tenant associations and part of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition that lobbied for passage of the legislation. Though housing courts were set up in the 1970s to help protect tenants, Trujillo said “they have become eviction mills supporting landlords.” In her experience, tenants often don’t show up in housing court because they have no legal representation. They don’t understand the process and fear losing their home if they come to court.
However, Trujillo said, many evictions happen precisely because tenants fail to appear in court and thus don’t get a chance to have their voice heard, even if their landlord does not have a legitimate case. Having a lawyer to stand up for them, Trujillo said, can reduce a tenant’s fear and empower them to go to court to fight the eviction notice.
Having a lawyer can also prevent a tenant from being pressured into signing an agreement in the courthouse hallway, said Mary Zulack, a law professor at Columbia University who represented tenants for over 20 years in Manhattan and Brooklyn housing courts. She echoed Trujillo’s view that the perception of housing court is that it has lapsed into an eviction mill. In cases where both landlords and tenants have proper legal representation, she said, judges have made informed and balanced decisions, and she is hopeful the Right to Counsel law can contribute to better outcomes for tenants.
What’s challenging is informing tenants of their rights before they need a lawyer. Going door-to-door and setting up tenant meetings is time-intensive, and organizations like the Flatbush Tenant Coalition have limited resources, Trujillo said. They are looking at ways to use technology to help them reach more tenants and are getting help from JustFix.nyc, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to give tenants tools to report landlord harassment or neglect. In March, the organization started working with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition to build the website Evictionfreenyc, where tenants facing eviction can find out if they qualify for legal aid and where they can go to find a lawyer.
With 90 to 95 percent of New Yorkers having access to smartphones and the internet, Dan Kass, executive director at JustFix.nyc, said he is confident the Evictionfreenyc website is reaching low-income tenants. Kass estimated the website has so far reached 2,500 tenants. In zip code 11216 though, the 30 people The Ink asked had a smartphone, but no one knew about the website. Ward said she heard from a friend that there was a website somewhere out there, but that was after she had already gone to housing court and been assigned a free lawyer.
Word of mouth is a crucial aspect of spreading the word about the Right to Counsel, said Zulack. “The Human Resource Administration is doing outreach, but many people are afraid of anything that comes from the government. … Your neighbor has to tell you about the benefits.”
Council Member Mark Levine, who spearheaded the legislative effort to introduce the Right to Counsel legislation, has no illusions with regards to tenants’ awareness of their right. “I would imagine if you surveyed the average person on the street in New York City,” he said in an interview with The Ink, “the awareness of this program is probably one percent.”
On Sept 12, Levine introduced new legislation that includes funding for information campaigns that would include ads in the subway and public service announcements on television stations owned by NYC Media. Both Levine and Zulack also said tenants facing eviction should receive information about the Right to Counsel attached to the eviction notice.
When asked about the concerns of organizations like the Flatbush Tenant Coalition struggling with limited resources, Levine said he wanted part of the budget to go towards “proactive tenant organizing work to spread this message, going door to door to tenants and vulnerable neighborhoods.” At this point, it is unclear what the exact budget will be, and how it will be allocated.
Zulack said that there is no single best way to inform tenants about initiatives like the Right to Counsel. She said the only way is to saturate people’s environment with information.