Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MFY Legal Services, Inc. and Center for Court Innovation Partner to Preserve Affordable Housing in East Harlem

MFY Legal Services, Inc. and Center for Court Innovation Partner to Preserve Affordable Housing in East Harlem
By Shafaq Khan, Staff Attorney, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
MFY Legal Services, Inc.’s Mental Health Law Project provides free legal services to people with mental illness who live in New York City, including advice, brief service and full representation on a variety of civil legal issues. The project’s focus is to help people with mental illness continue to live and thrive in their communities. As a result, MFY attorneys are part of the battle to preserve affordable housing for all low-income New Yorkers.
In a recent pilot program, MFY has partnered with the Center for Court Innovation to establish a legal clinic for people with mental illness at the Harlem Community Justice Center community court in East Harlem (“HCJC”). Unlike other housing courts, HCJC is a community court aimed at preserving and empowering the East Harlem community. The court acts as a family court and housing court. It also provides community programs to reduce youth crime and improve school attendance, amongst other things.
East Harlem is undergoing rapid gentrification. Construction of market-rate housing is underway and some East Harlem landlords are targeting rent-regulated apartments. Once emptied, the landlords can rent the apartment at a higher rent. As a result, many landlords bring baseless lawsuits with the hope that tenants do not show up to court and then get default judgments of eviction against them, or pressure unrepresented tenants who do appear in court into unfavorable settlements.
Additionally, the New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”) has a number of East Harlem public housing projects and is in housing court as a landlord, bringing nonpayment of rent cases, often based on incorrect rent calculations. The housing court’s docket also has a number of repairs cases brought by tenants against NYCHA. For example, tenants file repairs cases if NYCHA fails to address bedbug infestations, or paints over mold rather than treat the underlying condition. These cases are important because substandard apartment conditions can exacerbate psychiatric symptoms and/or cause physical illness.
The HCJC provides targeted eviction prevention assistance through its Help Center (the “HCJC Help Center” or “Center”). All New York City housing courts have help centers for tenants. However, the HCJC Help Center is operated by the Center for Court Innovation and is slightly different from other help centers. It is staffed by a dedicated team of professionals to provide tenants with additional assistance. This additional assistance includes a center coordinator who meets with tenants and makes referrals to appropriate agencies. The Center also has a Human Resources Administration (“HRA”) representative to help eligible tenants with arrears assistance.
The idea for the legal clinic came from a realization that there was an unmet need to assist unrepresented tenants with mental illness. Some of these tenants receive services from an agency called Adult Protective Services (“APS”). APS provides social services to senior citizens and people with disabilities. When a case is referred to APS in housing court, the tenant is evaluated by APS to determine eligibility. APS sometimes recommends a guardian ad litem (“GAL”) when the tenant cannot adequately defend or protect her rights. The GAL reviews settlement agreements, appears in court, negotiates with landlords’ attorneys, and applies for grants to pay arrears.
However, the HCJC Help Center noticed that many tenants with mental illness were never referred to APS. If they were referred, they were found ineligible to receive services and the assistance of a GAL. Even for those who were eligible, a GAL is not the same thing as having an attorney. The staff at HCJC Help Center identified this gap and therefore established a legal clinic staffed by MFY attorneys.
An MFY attorney meets with tenants in the East Harlem housing court twice a month. The initiative has helped ease the stress of housing court cases on low-income tenants with disabilities by providing immediate and easy access to an attorney. A court-based attorney makes it easier for tenants to stay in communication with the attorney. A tenant can make an appointment or come by after her court date when the details are still fresh in her mind. Clients can tell family members, caseworkers or home health aides to drop off documents for MFY at the Center because it is a short walk from their home. Additionally, the MFY attorney can track landlords that target rent-regulated tenants, make NYCHA tenants aware of recent lawsuits that affect their rights, and build relationships with court personnel.
Following is a typical example of the types of cases we see. A notorious landlord brought a nonpayment of rent proceeding against Ms. N. Ms. N was struggling with depressive symptoms and never showed up to court. The landlord got a judgment and evicted her family. She requested emergency relief from the court and got a two-week extension to pay the arrears in order to be restored to the apartment, during which time the landlord was prohibited from renting out Ms. N’s apartment. The short timeframe was overwhelming, especially since Ms. N and her three children were in a shelter and it would be difficult for her to negotiate the various bureaucracies necessary to obtain the back rent. She was terrified she would not regain the apartment her family had lived in for twenty years.
Ms. N, a NYCHA Section 8 recipient, had tried to apply for a grant from HRA to pay the arrears. To qualify, she had to show she could afford the rent. The problem was that she received a NYCHA termination notice because she had not renewed her Section 8 voucher. HRA told Ms. N that they would not give her a grant because she could not afford the rent without a valid Section 8 voucher.
MFY took the case and reviewed Ms. N’s notices from NYCHA. Her Section 8 voucher was still valid because of a grace period. We provided proof of the valid voucher and her income and applied for an HRA grant. With our advocacy, HRA processed and approved her grant in one business day. We also helped Ms. N renew her Section 8 voucher. Ms. N and her family safely returned to their home.
As the initiative progresses, MFY will continue to represent tenants with mental illness to maintain their housing, get repairs in their apartments, provide community trainings about relevant issues and work with the HCJC Help Center to empower tenants with mental illness so they may remain in their community.
Note: The MFY legal clinic is for tenants with a mental illness who have housing court cases in Harlem Community Justice Center. This housing court serves tenants who reside in apartments located in 10035 and 10037, all tenants from NYCHA Projects located in 10029, and tenants from NYCHA's rehab projects located in 10026. The Help Center should be able to schedule appointments for legal clinic or the tenant can drop by the Help Center in the courthouse to set up an appointment. The Help Center phone number is 212-360-8752.

Pullout: “The initiative has providing immediate and easy access to an attorney...[who] can track landlords that target rent-regulated tenants, make NYCHA tenants aware of recent lawsuits that affect their rights, and build relationships with court personnel.

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