The right to counsel is an important victory

June 25, 2018

Susanna Blankley, coordinator of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, makes the case that grassroots activism achieved some gains on an important issue for tenants.

IN RESPONSE to Jacob Niel’s piece on the right to counsel (“Band-Aids won’t stop the spread of gentrification”), we wanted to both thank the author for contextualizing the campaign in the larger struggle against neoliberal policies and also make some corrections about both the history, context and potential of the new legislation.

We certainly welcome critiques from observers, but we were surprised that the author made no attempt to talk to organizers and tenants who fought for this law about their motivations and vision and strategies.

We couldn’t agree more that publicly funding private profit in the affordable housing industry is a key part of the neoliberal regime, and that de Blasio’s housing plan follows in a long generation of housing plans that gentrify and displace poor Black and Brown New Yorkers through private investment. In fact, many members of the Right to Counsel NYC (RTCNYC) Coalition, have been organizing against rezonings.

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The author mentions the Jerome Avenue rezoning. CASA, one of the leading tenant organizing groups, also led the fight against the Jerome Avenue rezoning, along with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Met Council is leading the fight against the Inwood rezoning.

Yet the community resistance to those rezonings wasn’t mentioned. In fact, the widespread resistance to the rezoning as well as the homelessness crisis was part of the larger landscape in which we won the right to counsel and many other tenant movement demands.

However, we are surprised that Socialist Worker erases the organizing history that was led by tenants across the city to win the right to counsel, as well as its organizing potential. Back in 2011, tenants across the Bronx and Brooklyn were organizing campaigns to reform their respective housing courts because they saw them as centers of displacement, as a key piece of the larger struggle against gentrification that needed to be interrupted.

They also saw the courts as institutions that hold up larger systems of oppression, specifically white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy. They also knew that one of the results of a million New Yorkers experiencing the housing court, feeling humiliated, intimidated, powerless and patronized, was that the experience of court alone was either politicizing or an incredible deterrent to organizing.

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Tenant groups in the Bronx and Brooklyn began campaigns to reform the courts, to reclaim them, but also to build tenant power and to remove a key tool from the landlords’ arsenal — control of the courts. Anyone who thinks evictions are just about rent should read this great investigative article about the city’s housing courts. Tenant leaders and organizers know — evictions aren’t simply about rent, they are about power.

IN 2014, tenant groups across the city formed a coalition with disability advocates, homeless advocates, senior advocates, academics, religious leaders, union and legal services providers, and launched a three-year campaign to win legislation making New York the first city in the country to make eviction defense a right.

In order to win, we developed a grassroots base of thousands of tenants, mobilizing town halls in every borough; presenting at community boards across the city; securing resolutions in support of right to counsel from 42 community boards; collecting 7,000 signatures from tenants across the city; holding public forums and press conferences that mobilized hundreds; engaging over 100 faith leaders from across the city to sign on to a letter to the mayor; taking students, press and politicians on tours of the housing court to make public what is kept private; securing critical press coverage like the New York Times endorsement and trending on Twitter; overpowering City Hall on the day of the hearing so that many of us couldn’t get in, where we extended the hearing for eight hours as 78 people testified in support of the right to counsel; engaging in direct actions; and so much more!

The history of our coalition is actually up on our website. It is here that we really disagree with the author on this: Right to counsel wasn’t de Blasio’s plan. Giving de Blasio the credit delegitimizes the voices, actions and power of tenant organizing. The legislation was initiated, passed and funded because of tenant organizing.

In addition, there are some factual mistakes in the article about the capacity of tenant attorneys.

We went from 200 to 500 housing attorneys in the last couple of years, and the right to counsel is being phased in by zip codes over the next five years, precisely in order to ensure that there are enough housing attorneys and that the legal services organizations have time to hire and train. The author’s statements about not enough tenant attorneys or resources for right to counsel are simply inaccurate.

Also, as a result of right to counsel, landlords are filing fewer cases. We think this will continue and the number of eviction cases will decrease significantly, meaning the need for tenant attorneys for eviction defense will also decrease.

In addition, the RTCNYC Coalition is actively advocating for resources to increase as well as working with law schools to create housing clinics, creating curriculum to help train new attorneys, etc.

Moreover, the statement about attorneys not being able to do anything when a tenant can’t afford rent is also really not true, especially in a city like New York, with so many tenant protections! Here is a whole list of things attorneys can do in the context of an eviction defense cases where rent is too high.

Not to mention that tenant groups in the coalition are involved in many campaigns to reduce rents and change the laws that govern rents, and that there is a long history of socialist- and communist-led rent strikes, where tenants used eviction defense as a key tool to get rents reduced. The law as a shield for organizing can be a powerful tool.

LASTLY, BECAUSE the author misses the genesis of the campaign that fought for this law, he really dismisses its potential as an organizing tool.

We just removed a key weapon from the landlords’ arsenal and put the right to counsel in the hands of close to 1 million tenants that face eviction every year. Of course, it’s not the answer to our housing crisis, but it is an incredible tool to build power.

It is so much more than funding for free attorneys; the law emboldens tenants to organize and fight for their rights as the threat of eviction becomes less powerful. The knowledge that tenants have a right to an attorney will be a deterrent to landlords who would otherwise harass tenants, deny services and repairs or charge illegal rents.

Tenants across the city who are part of the coalition, haven’t stopped organizing because we won this law — to the contrary! Tenants are organizing to use this new tool to build power and reinvigorate the tenant movement!

Also it’s surprising that the author doesn’t acknowledge the ballot initiative campaign in San Francisco, largely powered by the Democratic Socialists of America, which was in high gear at the time of the article.

Within a week of the article being published, San Francisco voters voted overwhelmingly in favor of passing right to counsel. There, they also saw eviction defense as a key strategy in fighting to stay to create the city we need — something we can’t do if mass evictions are left unchecked.

We need an entirely different social, political and economic system to meet our needs. To win bolder housing demands in New York City that change the structures of power, we need a movement (organized and aligned) of hundreds of thousands if not millions, of tenants. Instead of calling this tool a Band-Aid, we call it a tool to build power.

Feel free to join the movement and see how tenants are using the new tool, among many others the tenant movement has won recently. You can sign up for updates, donate and volunteer to get involved!

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