Jose Genao, 40, who lives on Denman Street in Elmhurst, had to put off surgery on his injured foot for nearly five months, waiting for his 7-story building’s elevator to be fixed. While the issue was resolved when ownership changed, he and his fellow tenants galvanized over other issues with the building.
Catholic Migration Services, based in Sunnyside, offered help to Genao and his neighbors, including Shea Colon, 28. The two acted as spokespeople for the elderly and disabled tenants in particular when bringing up concerns to management.
“We had to fight to push to be kept in the loop,” Genao said.
Genao and Colon were two of several participants in a presentation at the monthly meeting of Catholic Migration Services, held last Thursday in Woodside, which was geared toward raising awareness of a City Council bill, Introduction 214, which proposes providing legal counsel in housing court cases.
“This legislation can help people open up a new door for tenants,” Colon said, adding too many people don’t understand the system. “Like in criminal court, where you have a right to counsel, you should have a right to counsel for this. You could lose your home.”
Organizers of the event, which included skits depicting struggles tenants experience with landlords and discussion circles with lawyers, asserted that the bill, co-sponsored by several Queens lawmakers, would keep more from being evicted.
Catholic Migration Services is one of approximately 50 organizations, including legal services and tenant advocates, that as part of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition supporting the bill, calls for appointing a civil justice coordinator in the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who will make a program to provide legal services for those who are eligible. The coordinator will ensure approved organizations are “providing competent legal services” and will compensate them, according to the bill.
In one skit, Colon played a landord’s lawyer who claims a tenant did not pay her rent for several months. She shows him her receipts, but is told that if she signs an agreement saying she was late on rent, she won’t be evicted.
A woman from the crowd shouted during the scene, saying he’s preying upon her.
Lorena Lopez, a tenant organizer with Catholic Migration Services, said the issues presented are what a lot of families in the city go through.
“[One goal is to] avoid landlords who use the tactic of taking people to court as a way of scaring them and making sure that, because they don’t have representation, because they don’t have an attorney, [the landlord is] most likely going to win. That’s why so many people are being evicted, because they don’t have that support,” Lopez said.
She noted that the bill would boost legal services already put in place offering support to condo and co-op owners and renters, which now can’t take as many cases as needed.
Lopez also said she’s accompanied tenants and attorneys, including non-English-speakers, to housing court in Kew Gardens. She noted the “big barrier” of language starting with small landlord-tenant interactions and extending to when tenants sign agreements without understanding them to “take the problem away.”
“It’s very crazy, it’s very frightening,” she said. “It’s a situation that I wouldn’t wish unto anyone.”
Representatives from City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) attended the meeting.
“We tend to think of homelessness in terms of building housing but we have to think about preventing homelessness,” said Marc Greenberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. “One way is through rent laws, another way is through right to counsel. As we heard, 30,000 households are evicted each year and 15,000 would probably not be if they knew their rights. If the public is aware of this, it will change.”
Greenberg added he will reach out to more clergy to emphasize the issue.
As of press time, the bill was with the City Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services. The coalition’s petition showing support for the measure, to be sent to Mayor de Blasio, had more than 1,400 signatures.