On Friday night, February 24th, the Office of Civil Justice finally held a hearing on Right to Counsel after over a year of the office not holding one despite being required to by law. We are still waiting on them to release their annual report, which they haven't done since 2021! Despite being on a Friday night, which is unheard of for government hearings and prohibitive to those who celebrate sabbath, more than 150 tenants, lawyers, allies and advocates testified about the need to #DefendRTC.
While the hearing was virtual, we streamed it live in our offices so tenants could testify together. More than 50 tenants attended the hearing this way.
Tenant after tenant testified about the power of RTC, how it kept them in their homes and helped them organize. Brooklyn tenant leaders shared stories of landlord harassment, repair and neglect on top of landlords' attempting eviction so they can push more Black & brown families out. "I think that if I had not had representation I would have been evicted. This is why having the Right to Counsel is so important" testified Fidele Albert with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition.
"Having an RTC lawyer helps to release your stress, fears, and keeps you knowledgeable about all the tricks landlords lawyers play on tenants," said Paulette James a tenant leader with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. "It takes the communities who are being hurt – WE are demanding a lawyer to represent us and who have the time to do so properly. The courts can do this by pausing cases if a lawyer is not had. You - The Office of Civil Justice - must demand that the courts pause cases if a lawyer is not available."
Ruth Riddick, a long time leader with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, shared that the experience of facing an eviction alone over 25 years ago is what has motivated her to fight for Right to Counsel. “When the law was first passed, it worked,” she said. “However, today, Judge Cannataro is not mandating the courts to slow down the cases. Many tenants are already intimidated just being in court, and they often do not know their legal rights.”
As Lucy from ANHD said: "We know RTC works! Pre-pandemic evictions plummeted 30% & over 80% of tenants were protected from eviction. Today more than 17k tenants are being DENIED RTC! This is outrageous!"
Our demands are simple:
- Stop cases moving forward without representation
- Don't calendar new cases until there is lawyer capacity
- Fully fund Local Law 53, the RTC organizing bill
- Fully Fund Right to Counsel
"We know the city can't support the homeless population we already have! We need stable housing for everyone and Right to Counsel so we don't make any more New Yorkers homeless," said Bronx tenant leader Althea Matthews. She called on OCJ to Defend RTC and and fund local law 53!
Legal services representatives also testified in support of Defending RTC. Dannelly Rodriguez from Queens Legal Services and Pilar DeJesus, among many others, spoke powerfully about their own experiences and their efforts to do everything they can to represent tenants in housing court. Then called on OCJ to fund Local Law 53 andannounce publicly when they will release the RFP for FY24 & the $3.57 million allocated the law. As Dannelly said, Right to Counsel Means Black Lives Matter.
Borough Presidents Levine and Gibson also testified, along with Council Members Abreu, Brewer and Restler. As BP Gibson said, "Fully fund RTC! Fully fund Local Law 53. That’s why we fought so hard in the first place. Legal representation in eviction proceedings in a fundamental RIGHT. Anything less is UNACCEPTABLE!"
Join us on Monday, March 27th to rally and testify (again!) at City Council! City Council has the power to fully Fund RTC, Fund Local Law 53 (the RTC organizing bill), oversee the Office of Civil Justice, Support Statewide Right to Counsel and so much more. Join us!