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Willie Williams was making medical payments for his mother last summer, after she had a stroke, on top of his usual expenses. The added burden exhausted his social security income and he fell behind on rent. After three months of non-payment, the landlord of the building in Bedford-Stuyvesant where Williams had lived for a decade issued an eviction notice.

At housing court, “He stuck the paper in front of my face and told me to sign,” Williams said of his landlord’s attorney. “This was my first time going through anything like this, I didn’t know any better.”

Without legal counsel, Williams, a 70-year-old retired security guard, signed away his tenant rights and agreed to quit the premises. That left him with two options: move in with his 94-year-old mother in downtown Brooklyn or enter a shelter.

Quandaries like this one are commonplace at New York City Housing Court, where 5,000 senior citizens face eviction every year without the advice of legal counsel, according to a report released earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

City Councilmember Rosie Mendez hopes to begin changing that by introducing a bill next month to make legal services available to all low-income seniors facing eviction in Housing Court.

“The concept is that low-income elderly people are one of your most vulnerable populations,” said Louise Seeley, executive director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, an independent nonprofit group, which has advocated for the legislation for more than a year. “They are also some of your more long-term residents…that may end up being targeted more in these cases that definitely will require counsel.”

They may end up being targeted because, just as the temptation to evict rent-stabilized tenants has risen alongside the increase in median rent (from $395 to $900 between 1987 and 2006), a landlord’s ability to evict rent-regulated tenants has grown too. In February, a Manhattan appeals court ruled that there is no limit on the number of units owners can take over for personal use in their buildings. (See “Tenants Protest Their Units Becoming Owner’s Mansion,” in this issue.)

“With the housing market the way it is, if you lose your home, the chances of finding something else in this city that’s affordable is slim to none,” said Mendez, an East Village Democrat.

That makes the very tight subsidized housing pool the only option for most evicted seniors. A 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Section 202 elderly housing found that there are 200,000 New York City seniors in line for 17,000 housing units. The average waiting time is nine years – and the fiscal 2007 federal budget included a 26 percent cut in Section 202 funding.

“So if they lose their home on a limited income with few possibilities of employment, where are they going to go? They’re going to end up in the shelters,” she said.

Last year, Councilmember Alan Gerson introduced a budget measure to fund legal services for all indigent tenants facing eviction. The measure failed, but as a sort of consolation, Council funded the Brennan Center report documenting the vulnerable senior population often lacking legal counsel in housing court. Some legal advocates see the unrepresented elderly as an advantageous starting point in a piecemeal strategy towards establishing a universal right to counsel in civil court, as already exists for criminal cases.

Most of the 160,000 eviction cases filed annually in Housing Court are settled in the hallway. While more than 85 percent of landlords have legal representation, an estimated 90 percent of tenants conclude these corridor negotiations without legal counsel, according to a 2001 study published in Law and Society Review. That study found that just 22 percent of tenants with lawyers had final judgments against them, while the number rose to 51 percent without representation. In the introduction to a 2005 report on the judiciary practices in Housing Court, New York County Lawyers’ Association President Norman L. Reimer wrote, “The correlation between lack of representation and eviction is undeniable.”

That certainly proved true for Willie Williams. After he signed the settlement with his landlord, Judge Thomas Fitzpatrick asked if he understood what he had just done. “No, I don’t,” said Williams. Seeing that he had unnecessarily given up his renter’s agreement, Fitzpatrick referred him to the Legal Aid Society. The group took on his case and dissolved the agreement, allowing Williams to remain in his home. Legal Aid also put him in touch with a social worker at the city Human Resources Administration who cut Williams a check to pay his back rent and increased his benefits to make paying rent in the future more manageable. “They were just beautiful,” he said of Legal Aid.

While those in favor of the Mendez legislation see Williams’ case as exemplifying the need for establishing right to counsel, those opposed think it illustrates how Housing Court judges provide sufficient oversight to ensure that tenants are not unjustly evicted.

“Does it happen? Yeah. Does it happen often? No,” said Robert D. Goldstein, managing partner of the law firm Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel, specializing in real estate and landlords’ representation. “Because judges have done a very good job with the court personnel and the resource centers in the court to make sure that people have the opportunity to have access to people who give them advice as to what they can do.”

Goldstein worries that the right to counsel in civil court would unnecessarily strain city resources. “I have a problem with creating bureaucracies and creating more expense that ultimately will be disproportionately paid for by the property owners,” said Goldstein. “This is all designed to eventually have lawyers representing all tenants in Housing Court matters. That’s a major undertaking from a financial point of view.”

Goldstein added, “Most people who qualify for legal services, especially senior citizens, can get legal services.”

Nonprofit legal services providers disagree. “Helpless cases get turned down, relatively mild cases or at least cases that can be worked out alone do, too. We turn down more than 50 percent of the applications we receive,” said Edward Josephson, director of litigation at South Brooklyn Legal Services.

Steven Banks, attorney in chief at the New York Legal Aid Society, said his organization can accept only one of every seven requests it receives. “Our staffs are put in the position of basically serving as a MASH unit,” said Banks.

In 2004, the Department for the Aging created an assigned counsel program for seniors in Manhattan and Brooklyn. According to the administrative judge of New York Civil Court, Fern Fisher, who supports the Mendez legislation, the program has provided legal counsel to about 400 low-income seniors to date. Many in legal services admire the program — but consider its impact a mere drop in the bucket.

While doing outreach in shelters, Banks said, he’s nearly always “handed court papers by a former tenant who lost their home because they had no ability to defend themselves without a lawyer, and a lawyer would have made the difference between staying in their home and ending up in a city shelter.”

City Council will decide if funds exist to make stories like Williams’ more common and belated introductions less frequent for Banks.

“Clearly both the state and the city spends substantial money on shelters,” said Banks. “Why not spend sufficient dollars to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place?”

– Rob Fischer

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