WEBEXCLUSIVE

An Uphill Battle for Legal Services in Brooklyn


Back in 2003, attorneys at Legal Services-NYC's (LS-NYC) Brooklyn offices began seeing clients who felt they had been swindled. As their stories unfolded, the lawyers were told that a realty outfit called United Homes had approached people in Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Bushwick, and other largely low-income communities and had lured them into purchasing houses that were supposedly fully-renovated, only to later learn that serious underlying problems continued to exist. Worse, many of them had been hoodwinked into agreeing to borrow money they could not afford to repay.
According to the original complaint, "United Homes preyed upon first-time, minority homebuyers to sell them dangerously defective homes at drastically inflated prices." In 2011, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $1 million. The court also issued an injunction barring United Homes from continuing to engage in their "dangerous flipping scheme." The company appealed and just last month, in early February, the state's Second District Court upheld the initial ruling, something LS-NYC calls "a profound vindication of our clients' rights."

The case was brought against United Homes by both Legal Services and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). "These homeowners went from thinking they'd realized their dreams, to having their lives fall down around them," Meghan Faux, project director of LS-NYC Brooklyn explains. "This had happened to dozens of households. The District Court decision, 11 years in the making, sends a message that this kind of targeting of low-income communities will not be tolerated."

But as important as it is for Faux and her colleagues to savor this victory, staff at LS-NYC, and the 80 people employed in its two Brooklyn offices, have no time to rest on their laurels. As the primary provider of free legal assistance to New York City's poorest residents—unlike the Legal Aid Society, Legal Services handles only civil cases—demand sorely outpaces available resources. Indeed, Citidata.com estimates that 27.6 percent of Brooklyn residents live on incomes below the official poverty line, $11,490 for individuals and $23,400 for a household of four, making virtually all of them financially eligible for Legal Services.

If only they had access.

"More than 70,000 evictions are filed each year in Brooklyn," attorney Karen May Bacdayan reports. "Ninety-five percent of landlords are represented in court by lawyers while only two percent of tenants are represented. This leads to a culture of abuse. As gentrification continues to spread, it disproportionately impacts the elderly, the disabled, and low-income people of color."

Last year, LS-NYC efforts helped 2,100 families throughout the five boroughs keep their homes. Still, all concede that it's an uphill struggle.

Brent Meltzer, co-director of the Housing Unit at LS-NYC's Court Street office in downtown Brooklyn, notes that "In the last six months there's been a real uptick in the number of landlords who are taking action that skirts building codes and illegally convert spaces into luxury housing." He cites a recent case in which a new owner tampered with fire extinguishers, rendering the Boerum Hill building unsafe. When the Department of Buildings came to inspect the premises, a Vacate Order was issued, leaving the tenants homeless. "Part of the problem," Meltzer continues, "is that the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development don't talk to each other. When was the last time you heard about a landlord being prosecuted for something like this? It's criminal activity, and there are landlords who are serial violators. They've repeatedly done this type of thing to empty buildings of long-term, rent-regulated tenants, and nothing happens to them."


While Meltzer is clearly exasperated, he does see a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Brooklyn's newly-elected District Attorney, Ken Thompson, has indicated an interest in meeting with LS-NYC to discuss this alarming trend.

Housing comprises the bulk of LS-NYC's work—whether preventing evictions and foreclosures, stopping rent gouging or illegal lockouts, or making sure that buildings are adequately maintained. At the same time, many other issues compete for staff attention: ensuring that people receive the benefits they're entitled to; mitigating domestic violence; protecting the rights of immigrants, the LGBT community, students, and the disabled; and protecting workers on the job, among them.

Attorney Nancy Bedard represents public school students facing suspension or removal from class because of allegedly disruptive behavior. "Children, some as young as five," she begins, "are routinely taken to hospital emergency rooms by ambulance following an in-school meltdown." "They get no services in the ER but can spend an entire day there before being sent home. This obviously compromises the child's ability to appreciate or enjoy school. The schools are looking for a solution to disruptive behavior but this does not teach a kid how to control him or herself. Worse, parents later get a bill for the cost of the hospital visit." How frequently does this occur? I ask. "According to the Fire Department, there were 18,000 calls for "emotionally disturbed persons in the NY public schools" between 2005 and 2010, Bedard says, "an average of 3,000 per year. "Although separate figures for Brooklyn are unavailable, Bedard says that the practice is quite common, something that prompted her to file a still-pending lawsuit on behalf of six children who were sent to the ER by EMS following calls to 911.

Litigation, of course, is a slow slog. At the same time it is sometimes the only way to affect lasting change. A recent victory by Brooklyn Legal Services attorney Cathy Bowman bears this out. The case involved a transgender woman, called Jane Doe in court papers, who is a client of the HIV/AIDS Service Agency (HASA). The 45-year-old Doe had identified as female since the age of 12 and had legally changed her name. She also brought medical proof of her gender transition to her HASA caseworker. Despite this, the agency refused to call Doe by her female appellation and persisted in using a male pronoun to refer to her. Bowman argued that this was a violation of state and city human rights law—making it illegal. Judge Margaret Chan agreed, and found that the refusal to use a person's legal name and proper gender identity constitutes discrimination.  

"We do our work through advocacy within litigation and by supporting community based organizations that are trying to create systemic change in communities impacted by poverty," LS-NYC's Brooklyn project director Meghan Faux explains. "Our goal is to address the issues that face low-income neighborhoods."

The biggest challenge, says Raun Rasmussen, executive director of LS-NYC, is in figuring out how to serve the largest number of people despite ongoing budgetary shortfalls. "There have been huge cuts to Legal Services since the economic downturn," he says. "The largest cut came from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in D.C., the overseer and primary funder of Legal Services’ 800 offices. Our grant went from $17.5 million to $10 million for fiscal 2014. Part of this is due to Congressional hostility to domestic spending and part is a result of sequestration. In addition, the 2010 Census showed fewer poor people in New York City so we lost money based on these figures. Unfortunately, we still have a million poor people in the city and we barely serve 10 percent of them."

Thankfully, he adds, LS-NYC has been able to raise some money from foundations and other non-LSC sources. Nonetheless, the organization has had to reduce its staff, from 385 in 2010 to 285 today.

Despite these diminished numbers, LS-NYC's lawyers, social workers, paralegals, investigators, and administrators are determined to use the law to upend poverty and improve the lives of low-income New Yorkers. Needless to say, they are continuing to fight the war on poverty, and are intent on winning.

           

Legal Services has two offices in Brooklyn:

105 Court Street, 3rd floor; 718.237.5500

1360 Fulton Street, Suite 301; 718.636.1155

They also run weekly satellite clinics:

Brighton Beach, 3049 Brighton 6th street; 347.592.2100

Sunset Park, Center for Family Life, 443 39th Street; 718.492.3585

Bedford-Stuyvesant, Groundwork for Success, 862 Park Avenue; 718.919.3938

East New York, Good Shepherd Services, 595 Sutter Avenue, 1st Floor; 718.346.2200

Park Slope, Fifth Avenue Committee, 621 Degraw Street; 718.237.2017.


Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader

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