EP-8: How Can We Fix NY’s Housing Crisis?

January 12, 2023

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There are more than 90,000 unhoused people in New York State on any given night, including more than 60,000 in New York City alone. Nearly half of renters in New York City are rent burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Meanwhile, rents across the state have skyrocketed and the number of people who face eviction is growing.

Political leaders have not done nearly enough to address this crisis. Why not? And what needs to be done to make sure every New Yorker has access to an affordable home?


Guests:

Julian Morales
Senior Housing Strategist, NYCLU

Lauren Springer
Tenant Leader, Catholic Migration Services


Episode Transcript

Simon: [00:00:00] Welcome to Rights This Way, a podcast from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of New York State. I'm Simon McCormack, senior staff writer at the NYCLU and your host for this podcast, which is focused on the civil rights and liberties issues that impact New Yorkers most. 

There are more than 90,000 unhoused people in New York State on any given night, including more than 60,000 in New York City alone. Nearly half of renters in New York City are rent burdened. [00:01:00] Meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Meanwhile, rents across the state have skyrocketed and the number of people who face eviction is growing.

Political leaders have not done nearly enough to address this crisis. Why not? And what needs to be done to make sure every New Yorker has access to an affordable home? We'll break down these questions and more in just a moment. First, I'd like to ask you to please download, subscribe, rate, and review Rights This Way. It will help more people find this podcast. 

And now I'm joined by two guests. Julian Morales is the NYCLU's Senior Housing Strategist and Lauren Springer is a tenant leader with Catholic Migration Services. Julian, Lauren welcome to Rights This Way. 

Julian: Thank you, Simon. It's great to be here.

Lauren: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Simon: Excellent. Well, very happy to have you. And, just before we really delve into this, Julian, I [00:02:00] actually think our listeners would be helped by getting a sense of why housing policy is an NYCLU issue. So, can you kind of explain that.

Julian: Sure. Thank you for the question. You know, I think we, at the New York Civil Liberties Union, we believe that stable and affordable housing is a civil right. You know, stable housing provides a foundation for employment, civic participation, health, and really most importantly, you know, the wellbeing of children in our state.

You know, we think that housing is so critical as you consider so many things around our city, around infrastructure, around education. You know, without a home it's a little hard to move around, you know, any other issue. And so we find housing stability and affordable housing to be a critical issue.

And we have worked on issues such as exclusionary housing, fighting for right to counsel, and also discrimination on the basis of housing. And so, housing, we believe [00:03:00] that, you know, affordable housing and stable housing is critical for the state of New York and for our country.

Simon: Great. And now I guess I'd like to ask you to both lay out the housing crisis that New York state faces. So, we have, here in New York City, where I'm recording this, there are a huge number of people who are rent burdened. And actually more than 30% of renters in the city pay more than half of their income in rent.

It just seems, beyond those statistics, anecdotally that things are becoming worse. more people are unhoused across the state. And it also just seems like for such a big problem there hasn't been nearly enough done to address it. So, I'd love to get both of your takes on just first the problems that we're experiencing.

Julian: You know, I think, when we think about some of the issues that are happening in regards to housing. I think about the pandemic. It was a global pandemic that no one could have expected [00:04:00] and we saw extreme sweetheart deals from from real estate and landlords and management companies giving away three months' rent to ensure that they can make sure they have less vacancies and their units could be filled.

And pre pandemic and post pandemic. We're watching rents soar anywhere from a few hundred bucks to a thousand dollars a month. Just out of nowhere we're watching our shelter system be overwhelmed and no real plan to create additional housing for our unhoused community.

And these are issues that have been issues in our state for decades. And, you know, I think you think about whether you're a renter, homeowner, or if you live in public housing there has been a lack of resources, political will to address these major concerns.

Lauren: There's a general lack of truly affordable housing in the city, in the state, actually. As Julian already mentioned, rents are too high, they've gotten even [00:05:00] higher. Many people were struggling financially before the pandemic and that problem has only gotten worse since the pandemic as they've struggled to get themselves out of a hole that they didn't create.

We have the eviction crisis that's happening. And then we have the undermining of our city law guaranteeing a right to counsel the tenants in housing court eviction proceedings.

Simon: And so, given the scope of this problem, that, you've both laid out here and the fact that many of these problems have existed to various degrees for a long time. What is your sense of why more hasn't been done by state and local leaders?

Lauren: Okay. Julian also already pointed out the political will is lacking. And I think that's especially true where electeds are receiving funding from landlord groups and developers. For some electeds it may be, it just may not be on their radar. They're focused on other issues and other pressing concerns such as crime reduction, which is an important issue and things of that nature, but there's a ticking time bomb of mass [00:06:00] evictions and increased homelessness that they're just not focusing on or, or addressing. There's also too much of a willingness to blame legal service providers and or tenants for the current crisis and the existing problems.

And there's also a shortsightedness. Electeds can either deal with these issues now on the front end by upholding the rights of tenants, by respecting right to counsel, by ensuring justice, or they can deal with it later on the back end when there's a greater financial toll and higher human costs. Um, homelessness is likely to increase.

It's already increasing. And, as Julian already pointed out, it's at a time when shelters are already at capacity.

Julian: And, if I could jump in there, I'd also say that there's this idea that the market will figure it out. Let's leave it all to the market. Let's leave it all to real estate and they'll figure it out. We'll pour millions upon millions to tax incentives, to programs, to create more housing. But we've [00:07:00] seen over the decade that that honestly hasn't had a major dent.

And I think as you think traditionally about housing stocks, particularly public housing, section eight housing, and government programs that were quite successful. You know, I think that we've seen this sort of shift on its head where we're, where our governments are giving more money to real estate when they're not actually really solving this issue.

I think the other thing to mention is that we saw some divides with our local leaders, particularly the mayor of New York City and the Governor for some time where they would point the blame or the success in different ways. And so, You know, I think we also saw in 2019 when, you know, there's a major shift in Albany electeds that you could actually pass tremendous protections for renters.

And so, hopefully we can continue to push forward and really make some drastic changes in policies for housing for new yorkers.

Simon: And Julian, you're referring there in, in [00:08:00] 2019 there was, the, the Independent Democratic conference, right? That ended up being dissolved and there was a push of an election in 2019 of, uh, many more progressive lawmakers. Is that, that's fair to say?

Julian: Correct. There was the IDC, technically Democrats, but they were caucusing with Republicans and we saw tremendous push to get actual Democrats and folks who care about housing to be elected. And, they were able to pass tremendous laws that particularly around rent stabilization to cover the entire state.

Make it much harder to deregulate apartments, which essentially would move an apartment from rent stabilization to the open market, which was happening, I think, 160,000 to be exact were lost. And we saw that change just because we had political will.

And so, you know, I think hopefully we can see that progression move forward and really pass some innovative well-intended housing policies to shift the paradigm.

Simon: Thank you for that. And [00:09:00] just so folks know when Julian's talking about, like, rent stabilized and rent regulated apartments, those are apartments that have to abide by certain rules, including certain rent increases, like it can only go up a certain percentage per year.

And, so many of those, the 160,000 apartments that you're talking about, Julian, are apartments that went back into like the free market free for all where, where the rent could be increased. I'm curious, Lauren, you are on the steering committee for the Right to Counsel NYC coalition.

Can you talk to us about what you do at Catholic Migration Services and why having an attorney when you go to housing court as a renter is so important.

Lauren: Certainly Simon. I'm a volunteer tenant leader with Catholic Migration Services, which is a legal services provider that specializes in housing, labor, and immigration law. I work closely with the tenant organizers in the housing unit, um, with respect to their education and outreach efforts to make tenants aware of their rights.

[00:10:00] I participate in campaigns. I attend meetings and rallies. I speak at conferences, teach-ins, town halls. I basically do whatever I can to advance the cause of tenants and to fight for justice, fairness, and equity for them. Pre passage of the right to counsel law in New York City, 90% of landlords were represented while only 10% of tenants were.

So, when the law was passed in 2017, it sought to shift that dynamic and to, basically deal with those inherent inequities. Housing court has traditionally, historically been a center of displacement. It's been an instrument of displacement, gentrification, and homelessness. And so basically what having an attorney does, it helps a tenant navigate a court process in a court system that's complicated and confusing.

Attorneys are able to use their knowledge of the law to explain options to tenants, to raise available claims and defenses, to explain agreements and what the legal ramifications of those agreements are. [00:11:00] And Tenants access one shot deals or other financial resources making it more likely that a tenant can stay in their home.

Court is a complicated process. As a layperson, it is. And so basically to come into court, it's a process that's been made more complicated by all of these new laws that got passed during the pandemic. And it's also, particularly, even more of a problem when somebody is facing an eviction they're under a lot of stress, english may not be their primary language. So, to be able to have, to be able to stand with someone who's knowledgeable about the law makes all the difference in the world.

Simon: And there are some stats that back that up just how important it is to to have a lawyer by your side when you're in housing court. Is that right?

Lauren: Exactly. So when we have about two or three years worth of data. This is after the passage of the law in 2017, and then pre covid where basically 86% of tenants who had a right to counsel attorney were able to stay in their homes. Evictions in [00:12:00] those neighborhoods or zip codes where RTC was in effect, declined more than five times faster than those areas that didn't have right to counsel.

On a citywide overall, evictions decreased nearly 40%, landlords sued tenants less, and tenants were more likely to appear in court rather than defaulting in their cases. So yeah, it was effective. It has been effective.

Simon: And it's, it was effective and it's also tenant led, right? You were telling me that before 

Lauren: Right. It definitely, so housing advocates and lawyers have been fighting for Right To Counsel for decades. And the movement actually gained traction when a community-based organization in the Bronx that's CASA, which stands for Community Action for Safe Apartments. Basically, Pushed for Right To Counsel.

It was part of one of the recommendations that they had come out with one of 23 recommendations actually in a report that they had produced describing tenant's experiences in housing court. And basically the timing was right for CASA to move forward with this because at the same time [00:13:00] that they had issued that report, or about a year later, Two then city council members, Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine had introduced legislation for a right to counsel and then CASA recognized the moment for what it was and basically decided that we needed to push for this as a law and they formed a tenant-led broad-based coalition to be able to fight for passage of this and basically disrupt court as a center of displacement and do something about the eviction crisis.

Simon: Gotcha. And, So this was a highly successful tenant led campaign and now it's under threat. People are facing eviction for and in many cases they actually do not have attorneys, even if they qualify. Talk to me about that, Lauren, and what the effect has been.

Lauren: So before the current crisis that we're facing, you know, eligible tenants would get an attorney at their first court appearance. Currently what we're seeing is when tenants go to housing court, they're not being connected with attorneys, and in some instances they're not even being told that they have a right to [00:14:00] counsel.

And courts are just moving thousands of cases forward without them having a right to counsel. In other words, courts are basically prioritizing their clearing basically, I guess, of their dockets ahead of a tenant having a right to counsel. And so what's happening is that more than half of the number of right to counsel eligible tenants have been denied right to counsel in the last nine months or so since the eviction moratorium was lifted.

And the stats are stark. So, almost 17,000 tenants have faced eviction alone. In the last nine months or so, the average rate of representation um, has been about 39% of tenants, getting a lawyer or or having a lawyer when they're in court. And in some months it's actually been less than that.

In September it was more like 10%. So, as I said, that's half the rate of what it should be with Right To Counsel in effect. 

Julian: When we think about right to counsel, we think about right to counsel as being a civil right and you know, no one should be in the business of taking away [00:15:00] folks' civil rights. It's not at the discretion of anyone at the court, particularly judges, to make a discretionary act of not letting folks know what their rights are.

Right? Folks can decide what they want to do once they know that's a right, but to not tell people that that is a really bad thing happening, particularly in New York.

Simon: And so you're talking about, we're facing a situation where thousands of people and a huge percentage, a huge percentage of people who are eligible for council still are just not getting it. Because this, this backlog, because of the issues, Lauren, you, you mentioned.

Lauren: Yeah, exactly. So what's happening is there's a, there's a backlog of cases that were paused during the Covid pandemic, when the eviction moratorium was in effect that are now moving forward, and now you've got like new case filings. So there's a backlog and the new case filings that that's one issue.

And there's also the issue with the labor shortage that legal service providers are facing, like a lot of other industries. They've [00:16:00] been impacted by the national labor shortage. So, they're having trouble hiring and also retaining attorneys but tenants are caught in the middle of all of this.

And it's basically between that and the courts deciding, let's just move these cases forward anyway. And so this is what we're seeing as a result. I mean tenants are having to go to court alone. And the stat that I gave in terms of like the September, what, 10%. You know, where it's 10% were represented.

That's a pre RTC statistic. You know, it's just me, where I said like 90% of landlords were represented and only 10%, so it's just, it's disheartening, especially when you consider how hard we fought for this law to see it undermined like it's being.

Simon: Yeah, exactly. And, Julian, it's, it's fair to say that this issue of a lack of counsel stretches across the the state. Is that right? 

Julian: Absolutely. 

Particularly in New York State landlords are actively trying to evict more than 260,000 tenants. Right? New York State has the highest rate of homelessness, but about [00:17:00] 92,000 folks who are currently unhoused. And so just like those two gigantic numbers should tell you what the lack of representation means for folks outside of New York City that don't have this protection.

And, you know, the one thing I'll say is like, this bill also comes with an acts for resources. But those resources are critical to ensure that folks have uh, representation and that they're well resourced. And not just in New York City, but throughout the state. And so, we think that as Lauren has reiterated that particularly when you have an attorney, it's very likely that you'd be staying in your home or there'll be a positive result rather than having no representation when most landlords have representation will level the playing field for tenants throughout the state of New York.

Simon: And before we get into some legislative pieces that we think would help address and alleviate this crisis. Lauren, I know you are looking locally specifically in, in terms of the right to counsel [00:18:00] problems. And you're looking at some non legislative things we can do to improve the situation. Is that right?

Lauren: That's, that's correct. I mean, we're fighting for legislation. True. But as far as, we're also working to try to do things administratively. Where basically we want the New York state to respect and enforce New York City's law. I mean the courts are basically um, they're state run, so that's also part of the conflict, I think.

So they're basically four things that we're seeking to have done. One, the first is that we want the chief judge of the court of appeals, that's the New York State's highest court, and he has the authority to do this, to issue an administrative order basically mandating that all cases where a tenant has a right to counsel for that to be administratively adjourned until they can secure, get an attorney to represent them. We also want them to reduce the cases, the number of cases on the court calendar so that the number of new cases matches the number of attorneys. So, it's a manageable caseload and you don't basically have more cases than you have attorneys. We also [00:19:00] want them to not calendar new cases until they take care of the backlog. And then also we wanna make sure that there's sufficient time between the court dates so that attorneys basically have time to do the essential work on a case. You basically prepare the case so that they can adequately represent the tenant.

And then keeping in mind that the court should also take into account the staffing shortages that the legal services providers are facing and as well as the the work overload that they're also experiencing because of the increase in the number of cases and also less attorneys to be able to handle them, their caseloads have also become extremely unmanageable.

Simon: Got it. And so Julian, I wanna move now into other possible things we can do to make sure everyone has an affordable home. So, what are some pieces of legislation we're supporting and how would those pieces of legislation help the situation?

Julian: Sure. So, you know, as I mentioned in [00:20:00] the front end, all people deserve safe and stable housing, but in New York State, tenants can be evicted for any reason. It could be your music is too loud or I don't like the way you're cooking. And so, there's been a loophole that often is used to evict families in retaliation for fighting for decent living conditions, right? So I don't have hot water and heat in the winter, and, which is horrific, and should be addressed, that's, you know, everyone is required to be providing those things for tenants, but sometimes that happens and landlords retaliate.

And so there's been a big push to pass a bill known as good cause eviction, which grants every tenant in New York state protections against unjust evictions and unreasonable rent increases. The other thing that is quite impactful but also landlords in real estate are not too excited about it, is that it caps rent increases to 3% or 150% of the [00:21:00] consumer price index, whichever is larger.

And so, on one end it prevents evictions, but it also can stop a tremendous rent increase at the discretion of the landlord. 

Simon: And we're also supporting a couple of other pieces. Is that right? Including a statewide version of the Right to Counsel legislation, right, that was passed in New York. 

Julian: Absolutely. we're supporting, uh, statewide Right to Counsel, you know, right now in 2017, New York City became the first city in the country to pass rights to counsel. And since then, landlords who are suing tenants. We see that 86% of tenants who have rights to counsel lawyers have won their case and were able to remain in their homes.

Obviously, post pandemic there are some major concerns with what's happening within the courts. But we see this as a tremendous tool to get folks legal representation, which is so critical in housing court. Just simply having legal representation can keep folks in their homes and we've been a big [00:22:00] supporter of the Right to Counsel and we look to do everything we can with all the tools in our toolbox to make sure that this bill actually becomes a law. If I can, I just wanted to mention one other bill. It's not a statewide bill, but it's a local bill in New York City at the New York City Council. It's known as the Fair Transfer Housing Act. It would prohibit any housing discrimination based on an arrest or a conviction record in New York City.

And so, you know, this bill will make it unlawful for housing providers to do background checks or to inquire about arrest or conviction records at any stage in the application process, or to deny and take adverse action on the basis of an arrest or a conviction record. This law will be enforced by the Human Rights Commission and we think that, folks do their time and they wanna come back into community, but there are so many barriers to allow folks who are formerly incarcerated to find housing. And we think that passing this bill would make it a lot more accessible and bring [00:23:00] folks back into community.

Simon: And the connections there between our traditional sort of NYCLU civil rights mission and that bill are so clear there. And as we wrap up my last question is, what can people listening who want to join this fight to bring housing justice to New York, what can people out there do? 

Julian: I mean, for one, before I answer the question, I think when I think about housing and this idea of, you know, we wanna mix our communities, we want to bring all communities together. I think when you think about housing development, typically what we've seen over the last few decades is let's go into a black and brown community and give them tremendous amount of resources and so we can make it a mixed income community. And it would be great to see that happen on the flip side, where low income communities of color are welcomed in wealthier communities. But I will say that some of the things that folks can do [00:24:00] is, find out who are the local community groups in your community?

Find out, Why are rents so damn high and there's not enough units? Call your state electeds to pass statewide Right to Counsel and good cause eviction. Also, push your city council members on many different things as well. They can also reach out to us at the New York Civil Liberties Union to figure out what we're doing and how they can make an impact statewide on housing policy.

Lauren: I agree with everything that Julian has said. I just wanted to add in a few things basically what they can also do is access the coalitions. The website at www.righttocounselnyc.org to learn more about the campaign, to defend citywide RTC, and also to get statewide Right to Counsel passed.

So the coalition is also involved in efforts to get the statewide right to counsel, recognizing that everyone in the state needs to be able to access this and also we also need to strengthen our citywide law. They should get connected to a tenants [00:25:00] community based organization and then join our actions.

I just wanted to double back on one thing in terms of when we were talking about how to defend the citywide RTC on an administrative level. Some of the things that we've done to fight back against the undermining of our citywide law is we've held meetings with local and city elected officials, we've done protests, we've taken electeds on housing court tours, we've held workshops and town halls, we've held solidarity actions where basically we've gone to court to try to support somebody facing eviction, and we've done regular outreach to courts and with respect to trying to get the statewide pass, we've been dealing, you know, we've been communicating with electeds, trying to educate them, trying to get them to understand the importance of the law and everything else with that.

But I think it's really important, as Julian said, for people to connect. Connect with the organizations, you know, fighting for this because we really can't do this alone or individually. Um, And I think, the very fact that how the law, the citywide law, [00:26:00] came to be passed in the first place was by us fighting together and fighting in unity, fighting as a community. That's how anything else is gonna be protected and how anything is gonna get advanced now.

Simon: Well with that, Lauren, Julian, thank you so much for being on Rights This Way.

Julian: Thank you so much. 

Lauren: Thank you for having us.

Simon: We covered a lot. So, here are a few takeaways. New York State is facing a historic housing crisis and too little has been done to address it. One thing that would help is providing a right to a lawyer or right to counsel for people facing eviction. The right already exists in New York City, but a huge backlog of eviction cases and other factors has meant that a large number of people who are eligible for a lawyer don't get one.

Whether you have a lawyer by your side when you face eviction makes a huge difference in whether you get to stay in your home. We also need to pass Good Cause Eviction, which would place restrictions on the reasons that [00:27:00] landlords can evict tenants and it would also put a cap on how much landlords can raise the rent.

Simon: Thank you for listening. You can find out more about everything we talked about today by visiting nyclu.org. And you can follow us @nyclu on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you have questions or comments about Rights This Way, you can email us at podcast@nyclu.org. Until next time, I'm Simon McCormack.

Thank you for fighting for a fair New York.