Multi-Union Legal Services Statement In Opposition to the Reopening of Housing Court

We are unionized legal services unions and workers who represent tenants in New York City’s housing courts.

Today, people of all walks of life are participating in a righteous uprising that demands an end to state-sanctioned violence against Black lives. In conjunction with this uprising, communities are renewing their demands for programs and policies that actually protect and serve communities of color. Despite this, New York City is set to evict thousands of mostly Black, Latinx, and immigrant populations. As the New York City tenant movement has already articulated, access to housing is a human right. We therefore oppose the forced re-opening of housing court, be it partial or complete, and any other policy that similarly values property and profit over Black and Brown life.

Thanks to tenants, organizers, and community leaders, New York City has been at the forefront of the movement to guarantee tenants legal representation in housing court. We stand with the tenant movement and with tenant-led organizations like Housing Justice for All and the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and we fully endorse their demands to cancel rent and reclaim our homes as well as their demands for changes to housing court during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

As lawyers and legal services workers, it is our ethical obligation to center our clients–their goals and their interests–in our advocacy. As public interest lawyers and legal services workers, we feel this responsibility keenly, as we are aware of the many ways our clients, especially our clients of color, are silenced by the legal system. To do our work at all, let alone to be effective advocates, we must oppose policies that actively harm our clients, that stifle their right to due process, and that set them up for failure in a system that already fails them.

In that vein, we demand that the following policies, which harm our clients and will do disproportionate violence to Black and Brown communities, be halted and reversed.

1. Advancing Evictions through Virtual Proceedings
We oppose the reopening of housing court in its current virtual form, which tramples the rights of poor and working class tenants and tenants with disabilities. In order for housing court to function digitally, every single New Yorker must have access to the technology and internet service needed to meaningfully participate. Even where a tenant may have a computer or smartphone, virtual hearings do not allow for confidential communications between attorneys and their clients. This in itself violates the due process rights of tenants without even considering the reasonable accommodations the courts already struggle to provide in-person for tenants with disabilities, the elderly, and tenants who need translation services.

We will not stand idly by while our clients’ rights are trampled in virtual proceedings by a court system that prioritizes profit over people. We refuse to waive any of the substantive or procedural rights our clients are entitled to merely because the courts wish to facilitate a smooth reopening of the eviction mill. We will not waive our clients’ rights to meaningfully participate in the defense of their homes and access the proceedings wherein their lives and the lives of their loved ones literally hang in the balance. We refuse to be complicit in the virtual rubber stamping of evictions in the midst of a global pandemic.

2. Allowing New Evictions Cases in the Midst of an Ongoing Pandemic
Judge Marks and Governor Cuomo’s failure to indefinitely stop unhousing New Yorkers in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis actively harms our clients, especially Black and Brown tenants. Governor Cuomo failed to extend the eviction moratorium, as called for by the tenant movement. Judge Marks’ most recent directive allows landlords to commence new eviction cases in the middle of a pandemic. The City failed to provide working class New Yorkers with concrete support to survive this pandemic, especially to those already unhoused or at risk of eviction. The State Legislature failed to cancel rent or provide any true rent relief to the millions of New Yorkers unable to pay. The vast majority of New York’s poor and working class tenants are left without any meaningful support. Yet, upon the return to court, tenants will be expected to pay back rent and survive an ongoing pandemic.

Therefore, in addition to fighting tooth and nail for our current clients, we will fight to ensure that new proceedings are halted, or, at the very least, slowed to a number that allows for the effective and competent representation that the tenant movement has fought so hard to win.

3. Physically Reopening the Courts
Judge Marks’ most recent directive vaguely delays the physical reopening of housing court. However, physically reopening housing court at any time before a vaccine is developed will actively harm our clients, especially Black and Brown tenants, by forcing tenants to choose between their health and their homes. Across the city, Black and Latinx New Yorkers have already died and are continuing to die from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white New Yorkers. Communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens are still ravaged by infection rates over 50%. Three communities in the Bronx have a 50% infection rate and the Bronx Housing Court is located between two “hot spots,” Morissania (43%) and Highbridge (38%).

Moreover, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) has failed to provide all court staff and tenants a thorough COVID-19 safety plan since the onset of the pandemic. Somehow, OCA still expects us to trust that they will safely reopen housing court, despite lacking any meaningful input from health experts, tenants, or tenant advocates.

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We thus stand with the tenant movement, with Black and Brown communities, and with poor, working class, and immigrant New Yorkers and demand that housing courts remain closed. We will not physically appear in housing court while the pandemic continues to threaten us and the communities we work with, and we call on OCA to keep the courts physically closed until a vaccine is widely available. We stand in solidarity with any and all court workers who refuse to physically return to housing court at the expense of their health and safety. Plexiglass may protect Judges, but it will not protect tenants.

We stand with our clients and refuse to allow their rights to be abrogated in virtual proceedings which they cannot access. We will not be complicit in waiving our clients’ rights in order to make evictions more convenient for landlords and the courts. We stand in solidarity with tenants and refuse to be co-opted by the courts and our funders to facilitate the advancement of private profit at the risk of tenant’s lives. We will not facilitate this injustice.

We demand that our employers join us in this fight to ensure that eviction proceedings are halted, that rent is canceled, and that the eviction moratorium is extended so that our current and future clients can survive this epidemic. To stand on the sidelines while the wealthy and powerful attempt to return to “business as usual” would be nothing less than complicity in the death of the countless tenants who will die as a result.

We urge Judge Lawrence Marks and OCA to disallow new eviction filings and to extend the suspension of eviction orders per Judge Marks’ Administrative Order issued March 15, 2020, until such time as a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available and freely accessible to all New Yorkers.

We call on all of our colleagues across the city, including court staff, to join us in refusing to be complicit in the systematic racism of restarting an eviction mill that allows landlords to disproportionately displace tenants of color while this pandemic continues to disproportionately kill Black and Brown people.

Sincerely,

– Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325
– 1199SEIU
– Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW 2320
– MFJ Shop (LSSA)
– A Better NYLAG (ALAA)
– CAMBA Legal Service Workers United (ALAA)
– Housing Conservation Coordinators Shop (NOLSW)
– Goddard Riverside Law Project Shop (NOLSW)
– Queens Housing Practice of ALAA
– Urban Justice Center Union (NOLSW)
– LSSA Brooklyn Shop
– LSSA Manhattan Shop
– TakeRoot Union (TRU)
Unionized Staff from Legal Services NYC, Mobilization for Justice, The Legal Aid Society, CAMBA Legal Services, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, New York Legal Assistance Group, Urban Justice Center, Goddard-Riverside, Housing Conservation Coordinators, JASA Legal Services for the Elderly, The Bronx Defenders, TakeRoot Justice