Monday, September 20, 2021
Coalition of Tenants, Elected Officials, Legal Service Providers Urge NY State Officials to Abort Plan to Resume Mandatory In-person Court Proceedings This Week
Coalition cites poor ventilation, narrow hallways, lack of safety planning as evidence that housing courts are “among the most dangerous places in New York City”
**VIEW LETTER HERE: https://bit.ly/3zfHqZf
New York, NY — Today, legal services unions, tenants, community organizations, and elected officials sent a letter to the New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA) and Governor Hochul urging them to halt plans that would force litigants and attorneys into New York City’s Housing Courts while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put communities in danger of sickness and death.
Currently, OCA plans to require all first appearances after intake to be in-person as early as Tuesday, September 21st, a timeline that advocates say is reckless and unnecessary. The letter explains that the current system of virtual-only court appearances has kept tenants and advocates safe while ensuring excellent legal representation for vulnerable tenants in New York City. Signed by roughly 30 unions and community-based organizations as well as 11 New York State legislators, the letter lays out evidence that city’s housing courts pose a high risk of COVID-19 transmission to those who enter, as determined by an independent investigation by CrowdRX. Advocates also point out that because the state’s recent eviction moratorium allows landlords to challenge whether a tenant has experienced COVID-related financial hardship and thus can be protected from eviction, the numbers of eviction cases in the coming weeks in housing court’s poorly ventilated, cramped spaces will explode as landlords argue to the court that their tenants aren’t covered under the moratorium.
“Resuming in-person appearances in Housing Court in just two weeks would be irresponsible and dangerous to the health of tenants, their attorneys, and other court officers and employees,” said New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie of New York’s 20th Senate District. “New Yorkers facing eviction should not be required to attend in-person appearances where ventilation may be poor, conditions crowded and lines long. After over a year of successful virtual hearings, mandatory in-person appearances will only spread the virus among those required to attend, not to mention those they return home to. I urge OCA to reconsider their plans to re-open in light of the changing nature of the pandemic.”
“As attorneys serving low-income tenants, we have been advocating on their behalf virtually for over a year,” said Andrea Alajbegovic and Alex Jacobs, tenants’ rights attorneys and members of the Legal Services Staff Association union, NOLSW/UAW Local 2320. “We have been doing so safely from our homes by attending virtual court appearances that protect us and our clients from contracting COVID. We urge OCA, Judge DiFiore, and Governor Hochul to keep housing court virtual before it’s too late to regret it.”
An Op-Ed oped by Alajbegovic and Jacobs was just published in the NY Daily News. Click here to read.
“Allowing in-person appearances in Housing Court as COVID-19 cases surge across NY due to the highly contagious Delta Variant is simply unacceptable,” said Malika Conner, Director of Organizing with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. “Now is not the time to resume pre-pandemic business as usual in Housing Court. We must continue to prioritize tenants’ health and safety over landlord profits and ‘clearing the docket.’ Reopening the courts in any way will quickly reel us back to superspreader housing courts, ramp up evictions, and push families into homelessness at a time when keeping New Yorkers securely housed is so critical.”
“Just like stopping evictions during a pandemic is a matter of public health, so is keeping housing court closed,” said Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All. “Tenants and legal workers are stronger when we work together, and we are united to keep one another safe and out of the courts.”
“Forcing tenants and advocates back into housing court in-person for mandatory initial appearances is pure theater that will cost lives,” said Sonja Shield, President of the Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW 2320. “The court system is performing ‘back to normal’ when the lives of our city’s hardest hit communities are anything but back to normal. Our dedicated legal services advocates have been working remotely and protecting tenants from eviction throughout the pandemic. Because of this, workers and their families have been kept safe while ensuring that New York City tenants are safe in their homes as well.”
“New York is imperiling the lives of many by forcing tenants and legal advocates back into court for mandatory in-person appearances,” said Beverley Brakeman, Regional Director, United Auto Workers Region 9A. “Our members have been providing high-level and successful representation to New York’s low-income tenants throughout the pandemic via remote appearances. There is no need to require mandatory in-person appearances, particularly when the courts have refused to provide updated reports on the ventilation and safety on the court house facilities, raising concerning questions about transmission risk of COVID for those who will be forced to enter the building.”
About LSSA 2320:
The Legal Services Staff Association is a “wall-to-wall” union representing all non-management employees at Legal Services NYC and Mobilization for Justice. Founded in 1973, LSSA is a unit of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers (NOLSW), Local 2320 of the United Auto Workers (UAW). We are dedicated to making it possible for our members to make careers in legal services through a fair labor contract and a dignified work environment. This allows us to provide high quality free legal services in the communities we serve.