Counsel Coalition Roasts Housing Woes At 2024 Evictions Forum, Crashing Hochul’s Party

January 22, 2024

Last Wednesday, over 100 tenants, organizers, attorneys and other allies from across New York State gathered at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany.

They gathered for the Right to Counsel Coalition’s 2024 State of Evictions Forum. Coalition members heard from three panels of experts who discussed the state of the state when it comes to rent, evictions, and homelessness, uplifted the organizing in NY communities that is building tenant power, and strategized towards a future where no one is evicted and housing is a human right. 

The Right to Counsel coalition is made up of over 80 organizations across New York State, with a three-bill state legislative platform: Statewide Right to Counsel (May-S2721/A1493), supported by over 200 organizations statewide, Defend RTC (Hoylman-Sigal-S3254/Rosenthal-A4993) and Winter Eviction Moratorium (Myrie-S1403/Kelles-A4093) legislation.

“Eviction is a preventable tragedy,” said Statewide Right to Counsel sponsor Senator Rachel May, as she kicked off the event, “but it’s also dragging down our entire communities in Syracuse and communities all throughout the state. We know that a lot of people would fight the eviction if they had access to an attorney. We also know that a lot of people just self evict as soon as they get that eviction notice.”

Coalition members heard a keynote speech from Dio Kaufman, a tenant at Saratoga Lakeview Mobile Home Park, who has organized to try to stop the displacement of her community members at the park, while their landlord has been seeking to evict them for multiple years, to turn the park into yacht storage. Dio attested that she and her partner are the “only remaining residents in the park… my former neighbors and I endured two years and counting of steady harassment, lies, divide and conquer tactics and intimidation… By fall of 2023, he had illegally and through harassment evicted all but two households, one is currently in court for eviction, and the other, my family, went through eviction court in 2022 and we won because we had an attorney.” Kaufman’s family was the only family in the park with an attorney.

Panelists discussed the historic success of NYC’s Right to Counsel law, which New York City tenants won in 2017. Wanda Martinez, tenant leader with Catholic Migration Services in Queens, shared that  “RTC was able to address the abuse and mass displacement that tenants were suffering at the time… It’s also been a benchmark for other counties and states who have also fought and won the Right to Counsel. As far as NYC, 86% of tenants who have received RTC have been able to stay in their homes and that’s amazing… [And] evictions have fallen by 40% because the landlords are not suing as much now that they know that we will stand up for our rights.” 

However, panelists also discussed the mounting eviction crisis, the court system’s failure to uphold NYC’s RTC law since the eviction moratorium lifted in 2022, and the dire nature of tenant representation in courts outside of NYC and Westchester County, where tenants lack RTC. Over 175,000 New Yorkers statewide are currently facing eviction, and in NYC, for over a year, tens of thousands of tenants have been denied access to their right to an attorney in their eviction case. 

Mary Traynor, Co-Founder of the Syracuse Tenant Union, spoke to the lack enforcement of tenants’ right to safe, habitable housing in Syracuse City Court and other upstate courts: “It really is a tool of racist oppression to go ahead and have laws that protect people and then have absolutely no way to enforce them…Landlords and government officials say tenants have a lot more rights than landlords–well they don’t and the rights they do have, they can’t access.” She publicized the passage of the Tenants Dignity and Safe Housing Act in 2022, which created a new vehicle for tenants to file their own affirmative cases for repairs. Tenants’ ability to sue affirmatively for repairs, harassment and illegal lock out would be significantly strengthened by the passage and funding of Statewide Right to Counsel.

The full recording of the forum is available to view on Right to Counsel’s Facebook page.

After the forum, tenants marched to Governor Kathy Hochul’s Executive Mansion, and tied 175 signs to the fence outside, each representing 1,000 New Yorkers facing eviction. Speakers demanded that the Governor act this year to uphold and expand Right to Counsel throughout the state, including funding a Statewide Right to Counsel with $260 million in the fiscal year 2025 budget. 

“…enforceable Right to Counsel for all…”

They also called on Speaker Carl Heastie to immediately appoint a new sponsor for Statewide Right to Counsel, after the recent resignation from office of Assemblymember Latoya Joyner, the former sponsor. Advocates called on the Speaker to ensure the new sponsor is passionate and knowledgeable about the coalitions’ campaign for a universal, enforceable Right to Counsel for all; committed to a long-term fight not just to pass but to fund and implement RTC; and accountable to tenants. 

“We need to expand and fully fund Right to Counsel…”

Finally, coalition members publicized a new brief from the Community Service Society, which shares data from this past year’s Unheard Third Survey regarding evictions in NYC. “Our latest Unheard Third survey shows that one in five Black households and one in four Latino households owed back rent in 2023,” said David R. Jones, Community Service Society of New York President and CEO. “We need to expand and fully fund Right to Counsel, to help protect tenants across the state.”

Photo credit: right to counsel NYC.

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