Three years ago, when New York City became the first place in the United States to provide a no-cost attorney services to low-income renters facing eviction, tenants and community activists celebrated their hard-won victory. Their four-and-a-half-year campaign, waged by the Right to Counsel Coalition, brought housing activists together with faith groups, grassroots organizations, legal service providers, unions, and allies including the American Association of Retired Persons.
This achievement is chronicled in a new documentary, Our Rights! Our Power! The Right to Counsel Campaign to Fight Evictions in NYC! The fifty-two-minute film premieres on December 3. It offers a clear-eyed look at the many tactics employed—petitions and letters to legislators; town hall meetings; a mock trial that highlighted the inequities endemic to Housing Court; visits to the offices of city council members; speak-outs and demonstrations; and an independently researched cost-benefit analysis showing that the city would save money by keeping tenants in their homes. It serves as both an inspiring testament to the power of organizing and a step-by-step look at what it took to win, making it a visual how-to playbook.
Advocates note that the effort to provide tenants with legal representation—which has been replicated in Baltimore, Boulder, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, Santa Monica, and San Francisco—helps equalize the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. But, as the film makes clear, it is not enough, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic collapse that the virus has triggered.
And so the Right to Counsel Coalition has begun to focus on social justice more broadly, and is strategizing to win reforms that go beyond what happens in housing court.
“Right to Counsel is a stepping stone to a world in which evictions are not normal,” Pablo Estupinan, interim co-coordinator of the Coalition and deputy director of Community Action for Safe Apartments, tells The Progressive. “It’s a step forward in the process of establishing housing justice.”
As part of a seventy-plus-member statewide Housing Justice for All effort, the Right to Counsel Coalition is demanding that New York State raise taxes on high-income residents; eliminate $2 billion in tax incentives given to corporations and large businesses; and institute a pied-à-terre tax on those with second homes worth $5 million or more. It is also working to support hundreds of tenants who are on rent strike.
“People are living in horrible conditions and are also struggling to feed their families,” Estupinan says. “This is why we have to cancel rent.”
Indeed, tenants throughout the country agree and, not surprisingly, the cancel rent movement is growing quickly. The demand that rent be forgiven emerged in response to the pandemic and organizers warn that twenty-eight million U.S. renters are presently at risk of eviction. In addition, housing justice activists are demanding mortgage cancellations and, more broadly, that affordable housing be available to all.
“Our homes, health, and collective safety and futures are on the line,” Beyond Recovery, one of the campaigns calling for cancelling all rent and mortgages, reports. “Millions of us don’t know how we’re going to pay our rent, mortgage, or utilities, yet landlords are expecting payment as if it’s business as usual. It’s not.”
Rising rents, stagnant wages, and low rental vacancy rates were a toxic mix long before COVID-19 hit U.S. shores, causing nearly half of the country’s 43 million rental households to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Rising rents, stagnant wages, and low rental vacancy rates were a toxic mix long before COVID-19 hit U.S. shores, causing nearly half of the country’s 43 million rental households to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In 2016 alone, landlords filed 2.3 million eviction petitions against tenants, leading to 900,000 actual evictions.
Today, more than nine months into the pandemic, the situation has become even more dire. Millions of people are struggling to put food on the table, pay their bills, and hold on to their homes.
This grim reality has prompted Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, to introduce HR 6515, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020. The bill would cancel rent and mortgage payments retroactive to April 1, and keep these protections in place until thirty days after the end of the health emergency. It would also establish a Rental Property Relief Fund, to be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, so that landlords can collect lost revenue. As of December 1, the bill had thirty-one House sponsors.
Meanwhile, an unprecedented wave of evictions is looming.
Jenny Laurie, executive director of a New York City tenant advocacy group called Housing Court Answers, says that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ordered the suspension of evictions through December 31, landlords in some states can still initiate removal and collection proceedings in local housing or civil courts.
In New York City, for example, Laurie reports that borough housing courts reopened in August and landlords have been permitted to reinstate proceedings against the 14.000 renters whose evictions had been ordered before the pandemic shut everything down.
The good news is that, thanks to the Right to Counsel Coalition, every tenant at risk of eviction, regardless of income level or address, can now secure an attorney at no cost to them. Previously, renters had to live in one of twenty-five designated zip codes and have an income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($25,520 for a single person; $52,4000 for a family of four), to be eligible for counsel.
‘We need a three-pronged approach to ensure housing stability,’ says tenant advocate Jenny Laurie.
It’s particularly important that they have representation, the Coalition says, because while the CDC moratorium protects tenants from being tossed into the streets before the end this month, judges can grant landlords immediate power to garnish wages or initiate other collection efforts for overdue rent. Worse, in recent weeks, Laurie says, approximately 20,000 new petitions for eviction were filed against tenants who are in arrears.
“We need a three-pronged approach to ensure housing stability,” she adds. “First, we need a blanket moratorium on evictions. Second, we need to cancel rent. Lastly, we need to pass legislation to provide housing for everyone who doesn’t have a home. We need real housing relief for all tenants. In addition, the Right to Counsel needs to be extended beyond the city to cover tenants in the rest of the state.”
Achieving this, of course, will require sustained grassroots organizing, a task made harder by the pandemic. But as the 2017 Right to Counsel victory proved, just because something is hard doesn’t make it impossible.
“People told us we were overreaching by demanding the right to counsel for tenants in housing court,” Bronx housing activist Carmen Vega-Rivera says in Our Rights! Our Power!
And while the Coalition did make some concessions—universal access to an attorney will not reach every zip code in the city until 2022, and activists feel that the eligibility cutoff should be increased to 400 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—the group’s demand that an attorney be available to every low-income person threatened with eviction in the city’s most-rapidly gentrifying areas was never compromised.
This pleases Bronx tenant leader Randy Dillard, who continues to celebrate the Coalition’s victory. “I didn’t know I would be part of a legacy, this movement to help get a bill passed,” he says in the film. “It was good. It was breathtaking. It really was.”