Author Archives |

Leveling the Legal Playing Field: Tenants Fight for Homes with the Help of Right to Counsel

Elizabeth Thompson, 72, has been in and out of court for around 31 years. She finally got an exemption for a lawyer after Right to Counsel.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Elizabeth Thompson, a 72-year-old retired health care clerk, had been in and out of housing court since 1988. Usually, it was because her landlord claimed she was behind in the rent. 

It was a battle that Thompson largely fought on her own. Until recently.

This past March, Thompson’s landlord took her to court again because she owed $817 in rent, according to court documents. Thompson is on a fixed income from social security and it doesn’t always arrive at the same time, she said. At first, she represented herself.

But she faced little success in court and decided she needed a lawyer.

“They say I’m not qualified for a lawyer,” she said.

Thompson received too much money in retirement from social security to qualify for a free lawyer in housing court, but she couldn’t afford one on her own.

New York City passed its historic Universal Access to Legal Representation law, also known as Right to Counsel, in 2017. It ensures free legal services to low-income Bronx tenants living in four ZIP codes, 10457, 10462, 10467 and 10468. In just two years, evictions in the Bronx decreased by 23%, according to the New York City Office of Civil Justice Annual Report. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, the Bronx claimed the highest decrease in evictions since Right to Counsel was implemented.

Currently, Right to Counsel is effective in these areas of the Bronx.
Hibah Ansari, The Bronx Ink

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition advocated for the law. They’re now campaigning to expand it so that more tenants, like Thompson, can be eligible. They partner with other organizations like Legal Services NYC.

Right to Counsel gives power back to tenants, especially as they face landlords represented by powerful law firms, according to Heejung Kook, the housing unit deputy director for Legal Services NYC.

“No one really gives advice to the tenants,” Kook said. “Once the attorney gets involved through the tenant’s side, the tenant knows what their defenses are. So we can try to negotiate for better terms, or often just to fight hard to keep their apartment.”

Thompson asked the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Association for help, and they directed her to the Legal Aid Society. Although she didn’t qualify because her income was too high, she spoke with a supervisor and was approved anyway.

Everything changed after she found representation, Thompson said.

“The court lawyer went against our landlord’s lawyer and let him know that he had to do,” she said.

Nadia Hasan, the supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society NYC, took up her case.

“A lot of it has to do with just having someone on your side, someone listening and explaining things to you,” Hasan said about Right to Counsel. She added that tenants also get better terms with an attorney present.

Both parties have to comply with the agreement Hasan fought for — Thompson will follow a payment plan while the landlord addresses the repairs.

Brian Stark, a lawyer for her landlord, according to court documents, could not be reached for comment.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition is a grassroots social justice organization. Part of their mission is to advocate for tenants’ rights in the Bronx.

The Bronx has had the most evictions out of any borough for the last six years, according to the Office of Civil Justice report. Before the law was passed, city marshals carried out 7,438 evictions in the Bronx, compared to 5,984 eviction in Brooklyn and 2,843 in Manhattan.

To qualify for free legal services, a family of two would have to make an income of less than $32,480, according to the New York City Housing Court. Thompson earns about $40,000 per a year.

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition wants to increase the income eligibility so more tenants like Thompson can be covered. For a family of two, the income limit would be $67,640.

Thompson’s building is owned by Claflin Apartments LLC, which is registered to Moshe Piller, according to state business records. 

The Bronx Ink previously reported on the conditions of Piller’s buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx in 2010. At the time, tenants complained of faulty wiring, a collapsed ceiling and clogged plumbing.

Thompson, who’s lived in the same Fordham apartment for 35 years, had similar complaints about her apartment.

Some days, the boiler in the building worked. Other days it didn’t. The electricity would occasionally go out — one time for eleven hours. Mice came through a hole under her kitchen sink. 

Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Inell Tolliver, 57, also lives in Thompson’s building. Tolliver said that the other tenants wouldn’t know how their landlord was responding to violations without Thompson, who tried to set up a meeting with building management.

There have been 286 complaints registered against Thompson’s building since 1991, according to the Department of Buildings. There have been nine since January. The most frequent complaint is that the elevator stops working. The building has six floors.

The superintendent could not be reached for comment.

Tolliver cited mold, scraped floors and a locked laundry room in the basement. She also said that the hot water doesn’t always work and it’s been a recurring issue.

When the Bronx Ink tested Thompson’s sink, the water became warm but would not get hot.

Neither Piller or a representative from M. P. Management could be reached for comment.

By 2022, all tenants who are income-eligible in New York City should have access to free legal representation, according to the New York City Housing Court. But even now, as evictions are decreasing, more than half of the tenants at the Bronx Housing Court did not know about their eligibility for a free lawyer before arriving to court, according to a survey conducted by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

For the first time, funding for expansion of legal services for low-income New York City tenants exceeded $100 million in 2018. The city expects to increase funding until all low-income tenants are covered in 2022, according to the Office of Civil Justice. Legal Services NYC also receives funding from the federal and state government as well as charity organizations.

Kook has some doubts about Right to Counsel’s ability to expand to all ZIP codes by 2022. But she added that if the city continues to fund and support Right to Counsel providers in the long term, they can effectively expand their services and decrease evictions across the city.

“Anyone can change the law,” Kook said. “We’re really hoping that the city will continue doing this kind of work.”

Thompson has not been to court since July. Her attorney helped her reach an agreement that will keep her out if she keeps up with rent.

Posted in Housing Injustice Right to Counsel, Special Reports0 Comments

Raise the Age law at work transforming youth’s futures

The Bronx Hall of Justice where the Raise the Age Law means fewer and fewer 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies are prosecuted as adults.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

On Oct. 2, Youth Part’s Judge Denis Boyle waited calmly from the bench in Bronx Criminal Court as attorneys, officers and aids busied themselves with preparations for the morning’s cases. All were gathered in Room 500 to decide the fate of the three teenagers on the docket.

It was the second day of the final phase of the 2017 law that raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in New York State. Starting Oct. 1, 17-year-olds arrested for felonies would now no longer automatically be treated as adults by the criminal justice system.

A prosecutor from the district attorney’s office in a grey and off-white suit readied at the desk among her colleagues. Yana Roy, a former Bronx prosecutor, sat on the front bench on the opposite side of the court reviewing her own case files, this time for the defense.

In the back row sat the accused, a tall, 17-year-old Bronx youth wearing a red Champions t-shirt and black sweatpants. He fidgeted next to Antoine Slater, his supervisor from the Youth Department of the Acacia Network, a nonprofit that focuses in part on youth rehabilitation.

The teenager, Neo C., stood accused of robbery in the second degree last November, when he was 16-years-old. His mother said that he’s been in court before, but for more minor crimes.

The previous year, Judge Boyle presided over the cases of 16-year-olds from the Bronx accused of crimes, moving all but a few of the most violent felony cases from adult court to Family Court. This fall, 17-year-olds now begin to fall under the same provision.

New York State was one of the last two states to halt automatically treating 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies as adults.

Before the 2017 Raise the Age law was passed, Neo would have ended up in Rikers Island correctional facility awaiting trial in adult court. But now, the Bronx teen stays at the Acacia Network, a nonprofit community service organization dedicated in part to troubled youth. Slater is his supervising youth worker.

The city transferred teens held in Rikers to Horizon Juvenile Center (above) in Mott Haven.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

According to the first annual report from the state on Raise the Age law, in the six-month period after October 2018, 16-year-olds arrested for felonies declined from an average of 244 to 155 per month, a reduction the report claims is due to “evidence-based interventions and services to address their needs.”

Felony arrests for 16-year-olds have been decreasing each year since 2013, according to a recent report from the Mayor’s office. In 2018, there was a record low of 1,915 felony arrests for 16-year-olds, down 11.3% from 2017.

Like Neo, these teens would have also ended up jailed with adults in Rikers Island had the state not raised the age of criminality to 18. The Rikers complex, known for a history of extreme violence, is slated to close for all prisoners by 2026.

Eileen Blake, Neo’s mother, rested her head on her arms on the back of the court room’s middle bench on Oct. 2. A fitness trainer by occupation, she wore green camo pants, her blue hair tied in a bun.

Attorney Roy and her client Neo assembled at one table in the courtroom, the prosecutors on the other. A court advocate between the groups was from The Fortune Society, an organization specializing in rehabilitation programs for the accused.

Now, because of the law, if Neo had committed a misdemeanor or non-violent felony, his case would be moved to Family Court.

“There are way more services for kids at Family Court,” said Deborah Rush, a juvenile attorney at the Bronx office of the Legal Aid Society.

Neo appeared before Judge Boyle because he is accused of a more serious crime, aggravated robbery. In New York, this means forcibly stealing property and harming an individual in the course of the theft.

Raise the Age created the adolescent offender category to refer to these 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies. For adolescent offenders, the legislation stipulates special holding facility requirements for children whom the judge determines need to be held before trial.

Acacia and Fortune Society are examples of accepted alternatives to being held with adults in Rikers.

Crossroads Juvenile Center, the city’s second holding facility for children, located in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

By Oct. 1, 2018, all teens under 18 were transferred to Horizon Juvenile Center, a detention facility in Mott Haven in the South Bronx, according an Oct. 1, 2018, statement from the Mayor’s office. Seventeen-year-olds arrested before Oct. 1, 2019, would go to Horizon, while Crossroads in Brownsville, Brooklyn, would house those under 17, according to the statement.

Their crimes are also less likely to follow them through the rest of their lives. Teens who comply with the judge’s stipulations and work with prosecutors, may have their records sealed if their offenses are eligible. Several crimes are not eligible for a sealed record, including sex crimes.

Other categories under Raise the Age law include those who were 13- to 15-years-old when they were charged with a serious crime. Another exception are juvenile delinquents who committed misdemeanors either before they were 16, or were sent from adult criminal court to Family Court when they were 16 or 17 years old.

It is possible for the judge to move cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds to Family Court if they meet three criteria: the teen cannot have used a lethal weapon, caused serious physical harm, or have committed a sex crime.

In non-violent felonies, the District Attorney’s office can also block the case from entering Family Court if prosecutors prove “extraordinary circumstances” within 30 days, according to the 2018 Annual Report from the New York State Unified Court System.

Neo was 16 when he was arrested on the aggravated robbery charge. In the course of the robbery, a victim was injured. Because of this more serious charge, his case landed in the Youth Part of criminal court instead of Family Court.

The prosecution extended to Neo a guilty plea offer.

After discussion with his attorney, Neo accepted the offer. It meant that he would remain under supervision in the Acacia program. He would be required to remain substance-free, and stay on track to earn his GED diploma. If he complied and stayed out of trouble, he would be designated a youthful offender, which would mean all of his charges could potentially be removed from his record.

Neo’s supervisor at Acacia has been a youth worker at the organization for 19 years. Slater is currently responsible for over 40 kids ages 15 to 20, including Neo. The Bronx-based organization provides treatment based on the specific needs of the kids by creating one-on-one relationships between adults and teens.

“We specialize in behavior modification and substance abuse,” said Slater. 

Part of his work includes ensuring kids wake up for school on time, attend their classes, and generally behave. Slater also provides counseling. He makes himself available to the kids if they’re having a tough time and need to talk to someone.

Slater is also charged with providing a report to Judge Boyle on Neo’s progress.

Judge Boyle brought up Slater’s report during sentencing, saying he was pleased to see that Neo was on track to get his GED, respectful of staff and other kids, and substance-free.

“You may be able to help your peers. This may be a real challenge for you,” said Judge Boyle, looking directly at Neo. “But I think you’re up to it.”

Slater thinks that Neo will be able to earn his GED and graduate from the Acacia program in nine to twelve months. 

“One thing about him,” Slater said. “I think he’ll be successful.”

Neo stood beside his attorney with his arms wrapped behind his back as Judge Boyle addressed him. He shifted his weight from foot to foot.

His mother, Eileen Blake, said she wasn’t sure what she thought after they left the courtroom. A day later, she said that she still didn’t know why her son pleaded guilty. But, she added, she did respect the judge and is genuinely convinced that he wants children charged with a crime to be rehabilitated into society rather than locked up.

“I have no problem with him, because he’s always been fair,” she said. “I don’t believe [Judge Boyle] believes youth should be in jail.”

She and her ex-husband were fitness trainers, she said. Neo had an older brother. Growing up, Blake taught Neo how to play basketball. 

When he was in the public school system, Neo started playing the trumpet. Blake said that he excelled. Six months after he started, he played in the Bronx Day Parade.

“He took the city,” she said.

A few things happened in his life that pushed her younger son in a different direction, Blake said. She and her husband split up and Neo’s older brother joined the military. Then Neo switched public schools into a smaller program that didn’t have the resources to allow him to continue playing the trumpet.

“The public school system took everything away from my son that made him shine,” she said.

In Nov. 2018, Neo was arrested for the robbery that brought him before Judge Boyle. According to state criminal justice statistics, between January and June, 2017 to 2019, violent felonies committed by 16-year-olds went down 15% in New York City as a whole, while in the Bronx they decreased by a third. It’s too soon to tell how rates for 17-year-olds may be affected.

In New York City as a whole, violent felonies have decreased by 5.4% for 16-year-olds. In the Bronx, they have decreased by 15%.

“There have been some coordination glitches with the city,” said Deborah Rush, a juvenile defense attorney at the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, such as a van not reliably transporting teens to the Bronx Hall of Justice. 

But on the whole, she says the implementation of Raise the Age has gone well.

Because of his good behavior at Acacia, Neo earned a home pass, which means he got to visit home for a day on Saturday, Oct. 5, according to his mother.

This would never have been possible if he had been held in Rikers.

“Neo has a cat that misses him desperately,” said Blake. “Blue-kai. That’s the one that picked him.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Prison0 Comments

At Bronx town hall, concerns about criminal justice, housing

Bronx state senators address their constituents on Thursday, Sep. 12.

THE BRONX, New York—Vivian Young has lived in the Bronx her entire life, but now, at 65, she’s worried about what it would take to remain living there.

“I love it here,” Young said at a town hall at Monroe College in University Heights last Thursday night.

She said affordable housing for seniors is getting harder to come by.

Over 40 borough residents attended the town hall hosted by Bronx state senators. They expressed concern over health, housing and criminal justice.

Young is also concerned about public health, noting that the Bronx has high diabetes rates.

In the borough, 16% of adults have diabetes, according to New York City Health Department data. Only 11% of adults in the city as a whole have the disease. The department notes that around 164,000 adults have not been diagnosed.

Steven Pacheco, 29, a student at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wanted to hear about how lawmakers were prepared to handle marijuana convictions, rehabilitation into society, and market access, concerns rooted in racial inequality.

“The culture is rich, the people are beautiful,” Mr. Pacheco said of the Bronx. “[But] it’s the last borough in everything.”

Over forty residents appeared to express their concerns.

Sen. Luis Sepúlveda spoke on the legal system and its treatment of people of color. As the chair of the Crime and Corrections Committee, he said he had visited 13 facilities, which had conditions he described as “an abomination.”

Five state senators from the Bronx listened to residents’ concerns, but they also publicized their own accomplishments during the recent legislative session.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera said he was proud of legislation that “codified the ACA in law.”

As lawmakers touted accomplishments throughout their speeches, attendees applauded.

To get something done in the legislature, said Sen. Jamaal Bailey, “you have to go through the Bronx.” He is the Chairman of the Codes Committee. Each of the legislators at the town hall  chair a committee.

In the 2018 Midterm elections, Democrats picked up eight seats in the New York Senate, gaining control of both branches of the legislature and ending the divided government. This allowed them to pass 248 laws, according to official counts.

While just over 40 people showed up, in addition, one in five were staffers for legislators or Monroe College. The moderator opened the panel over a half hour late.

Freshman Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, occasionally sipping from a jar of kombucha, explained how she reestablished the Ethics Committee after years of hiatus. She also held sexual assault hearings.

After the event, Ms. Young expressed disappointment that Sen. Serrano was late due to parent conferences at school. 

“I think he could have just stayed home,” she said.

However, she was encouraged that by Sen. Rivera’s efforts at health care legislation.

According to Sen. Rivera, there’s more to do. “[We’re] just getting the training wheels off.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Politics0 Comments