Nonprofit legal service providers often file group lawsuits that assist tenants fighting landlord harassment across an entire building. But a new solicitation appears to impose limits on this preferred strategy for winning repairs and rent reductions. 

Adi Talwar

Members of a Brooklyn tenant association work with a HOPE organizer and AHTP-funded TakeRoot Justice attorney (center) during a building meeting in March.

Attorneys who specialize in helping tenant organizations fight for repairs and challenge rent hikes fear they will be forced to scale back this work dramatically under future city contracts.

Nonprofits including Legal Services NYC and TakeRoot Justice are poring over a $128.7 million solicitation issued this month by the Human Resources Administration (HRA), previewing rules for participating in the Anti-Harassment Tenant Protection (AHTP) program for the three years starting in July 2024.

Launched in 2016, AHTP was conceived to help low-income tenants combat harassment that could force them from their homes, such as illegal rent increases and dangerous conditions in rent stabilized buildings. Beyond standard eviction defense, AHTP lawyers can help bring proactive lawsuits against landlords.

Historically, providers say, most of this work has taken the form of group proceedings: consolidated litigation to assist tenants across a building. Group cases might back up tenants on rent strike, help win court-appointed administrators in particularly unsafe buildings, or establish novel defense strategies across multiple properties.

But HRA’s scope of work appears to limit group cases to 15 percent of overall legal services. Providers could otherwise represent individual tenants facing eviction, rent hikes or discrimination, and could offer some non-litigation help at lower reimbursement rates, like landlord mediation, cease-and-desist letters and legal advice and research.

“Our goal was to do 100 percent of the work under that contract as group representation,” said Rosalind Black, citywide housing director for Legal Services NYC, a current AHTP contractor. “And to have that cut to 15 percent is shocking, is unjust, is really very tone deaf to what’s happening in the communities—to tenants who are facing all kinds of landlord harassment and pressures because of unaffordable rents.” 

Reached for comment, HRA did not address case caps directly, but said the city is responsive to concerns and warned against amplifying potential misinterpretations ahead of a planned conference with potential contractors.

Keriann Pauls, director of coalitions and resource management at TakeRoot Justice— part of the LEAP Coalition, a group of providers that contract with AHTP—said that the language regarding case caps is somewhat vague but concerning, and must be clarified. 

Group cases are impactful, she added, as they can help an entire building’s worth of tenants in one go. “It’s way more efficient and effective and actually will change landlord behavior,” Pauls said. “You can file one case on behalf of one tenant about their cooking gas being shut off, but how much impact is that having with the landlord?” 

A cap on group work would shift AHTP further into supporting eviction defense, as the city’s unique Right to Counsel program struggles to meet demand, according to Black.

Already, AHTP lawyers have been called into housing court to staff intake shifts. 

“This seems to be a plan to build capacity for that at the expense of all the preventative work that goes on and has been going on,” she said. 

Such a cap would also strip attorneys of the flexibility they need to build the best legal strategy for a building, said Adriene Holder, chief attorney at the civil practice of the Legal Aid Society. “The way in which this is structured now, it’s not going to be the same program we have today,” she said. 

In a statement to City Limits, HRA cited new funding secured this year for eviction defense, though attorneys have said that the city is requiring them to take on too many cases to ensure effective representation. 

“We have significantly increased funding to ensure the comprehensive and effective implementation of our first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel initiative, including eviction prevention services that are critical to keeping at-risk tenants stably housed,” a spokesperson said. 

HRA’s Office of Civil Justice, or OCJ, oversees AHTP contracts.

“OCJ’s first and foremost commitment is to vulnerable New Yorkers, and we always work to ensure that they are getting the full scope of services they need and deserve,” the statement continued. “We work closely with our provider network every step of the way and have set up official forums for transparent information sharing and helpful engagement in service of our shared mission to deliver for New Yorkers in need.”

Attorneys and tenant advocates are also concerned about a section of the AHTP document requiring providers to dedicate a chunk of their funding–8 to 10 percent—to tenant outreach. 

In May of 2021, advocates with the Right to Counsel Coalition celebrated the passage of Local Law 53, which required the city to work with community organizations to “educate and inform tenants about their rights” in housing court.  

Yet funding has been slow to materialize. The outreach requirement in the AHTP solicitation is now meant to satisfy Local Law 53, an HRA spokesperson confirmed. Legal service organizations can subcontract to community groups to satisfy it. 

In its letter to the city formally protesting the AHTP terms, the LEAP Coalition warned that it is being “used as a vehicle” to fund this outreach, further limiting resources for legal work. 

Bronx tenant Randy Dillard is on the steering committee of the Right to Counsel Coalition, which is demanding separate funding for Local Law 53. He recalled pushing for the law after learning that many tenants facing eviction were not aware of their rights. 

“Why can’t the law be what we asked it to be? We had to fight and go back to City Council to get them to put the funding in,” he told City Limits. Community groups that tenants trust should take the lead on outreach efforts, Dillard added. 

A meeting is scheduled for this coming Tuesday between HRA and legal nonprofits, according to Holder of Legal Aid. It is expected to cover concerns about eviction defense funding, as well as the anti-harassment litigation.

“I’m hoping the city at that time will have some answers and there could be some meaningful exchange,” Holder said. She urged HRA to pause the contracting process and take providers’ suggestions to modify the program terms. 

For Jordan Cooper, organizing director with Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, or UHAB, robust funding for building-wide lawsuits is crucial. UHAB works with a dozen tenant organizations, through Housing Organizers for People Empowerment, or HOPE. 

“Having the ability to recruit tenant associations and really committing to legal representation when they want to take landlords to court, that’s huge for us,” she said. 

“Those are services that are extremely costly and rare without this city investment.” 

This work is a crucial component of eviction defense, Cooper added.

“We are going to keep fighting these eviction cases but we know there could be another lawsuit coming up behind it,” she said. “So the longer-term, deeper organizing work we’re doing in buildings to grow these tenant organizations is part of this long-term fight—not just when tenants are being brought to court right now, but next year and any year into the future.” 

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