12. Organizing for a Just and Powerful Implementation

An outdoor rally featuring a tenant activist speaker

Once we won, we began a whole new campaign to ensure a just implementation of the law and also to ensure that the law helps build tenant power through bold organizing. We developed a lot of materials and structures to support implementation and increase awareness. This was in part because city government was not creating these mechanisms fast enough to keep up with the need for them, and because developing these resources allowed us to continue to control the narrative around Right to Counsel. Organizing around implementation had 4 main components: tenant outreach, education and organizing; advocacy related to court based procedures and policies; training tenant attorneys (new and old); and working to improve, strengthen and expand the legislation. In this phase of the campaign we began to fundraise for dedicated resources to support the coalition, and we hired a coalition coordinator as we recognized that the implementation work would require additional resources. As we moved forward, we dedicated resources primarily to support neighborhood-based community organizing work, but also for resources like our Eviction Free NYC website.

In NYC, the law funds lawyers, not organizers, which is something we are working to change. We have important questions to answer: now that tenants have this new right, how do they learn about it? And once they are informed about it, how do they claim it as theirs and use it to unleash organizing potential and build the tenant movement? While there is a lot of work to do around implementation, the majority of our resources go to supporting this type of work.

Please note that we developed the toolkit while still running a just implementation campaign. So this list of tools is not exhaustive! It’s just a sample. Definitely feel free to reach out to us if you have questions about organizing around just implementation!

Included are four sets of tools:

Coalition Tools around Principles and Messaging

  • Guiding Principles for Right to Counsel Legislation and Implementation: Developed by our coalition to advocate for the best possible language in the legislation as well as the best possible implementation.
  • Tips for Speaking to the Press about Implementation: Developed to ensure a consistent and strategic message.
  • Working Groups for Implementation and Ongoing Organizing: Describes the work of our different working groups as we continue the implementation process.

Tools for Outreach/Tenant Engagement and Education

  • Frequently Asked Questions: Designed as a community education tool to ensure tenants know their rights as well as to explain how the five year phase in would work, given that during this time some tenants have access to RTC while others do not.
  • Facilitation Guide and Q&A for Right to Counsel and Implementation: Designed to get the word out about implementation for tenants, legal service providers, legislators and other stakeholders.
  • New Website: Eviction Free NYC: Our website gives people access to information about Right to Counsel, helps determines their eligibility and shares how to connect to an attorney.

Tools for Ongoing Organizing

  • Right to Counsel 2.0: The Work to Come: Documenting our vision for continued organizing to strengthen Right to Counsel in New York City.
  • Working Groups for Implementation and Ongoing Organizing: To organize the work of your campaign’s implementation organizing phase.
  • Town Hall Guiding Agenda: To organize and facilitate public meetings in which implementation is outlined.
  • Supporting Implementation Organizing: These tools are designed to guide ongoing organizing:

    • Organizing principles
    • Organizing after the win timeline
    • Town Hall phone banking script
    • Overview of Organizing in Right to Counsel Zip Codes
    • Worst Evictors List
    • Evictions Pamphlet
    • Our demands to make NYC eviction free
    • Rent strikes as an organizing tool
    • People’s Tribunal on Evictions
    • Tenant Movement History Timeline

Supporting the Development of Zealous Movement Attorneys

  • Housing Justice Leadership Institute

    • Brochure, with program information and application.
    • Initial press release
  • Neighborhood-based meetings between RTC organizers and lawyers

    • Sample introduction email
    • Sample meeting agenda
  • List of Essential Trainings for RTC attorneys

    • Essential trainings for RTC attorneys
    • Sample training schedule for tenant movement history
    • Small group instructions
  • Taking our show on the road: Presentations to law school students

    • Law school roadshow presentation
    • Outreach email to law schools
    • Orientation for new lawyers
    • Become a RTC lawyer (job board)

Coalition Tools around Principles and Messaging

We developed the tools in this sections to guide our internal work about how to present Right to Counsel externally. These principles and tips were additional ways for us to control the narrative about the right, our stories and how we wanted the right to be rolled out.

Included in this section:

  • Guiding Principles for Right to Counsel Legislation: What we wanted implementation to look like in New York City.
  • Tips for Speaking to the Press About Implementation: These tips ensured that we were speaking with one voice about implementation.
  • Working Groups for Implementation and Ongoing Organizing: Describes the different working groups that are focused on different aspects of our implementation campaign.

Guiding Principles for Right to Counsel Implementation

This set of principles was designed by our coalition after Right to Counsel was announced and before it was passed. They center and align our priorities and unify our demands for the final language of the legislation and the implementation plan. Once the Mayor and Speaker announced support for RTC (six months before the legislation passed), a lot of players who were not previously active in the coalition suddenly appeared wanting a say in the final legislation and implementation. Consequently, in order to ground and direct our work during this time, we collectively developed a set of principles over the course of a few meetings, and then met with organizations and key stakeholders individually and asked them to sign on. It was important that we show city administrators what implementation could look like, and developing these principles was a strategic part of our organizing to influence the City’s five-year implementation plan. Some of the principles in this document were developed in direct response to what we were hearing from the City about what would or wouldn’t be in the legislation. We used this tool, as well as the list of endorsers, during the negotiations regarding the final legislative language.

Developing similar principles in your own context will help ensure that your organizing around implementation is strategic and sustainable. It is also important to keep in mind that when you win, people who weren’t involved originally will suddenly want to be, and this process helped us focus and organize our work as our coalition grew. Our principles can be used as a model, though your local context, the specifics of your legislation and the priorities of your organizing will inspire your own principles.

Tips for Speaking to the Press about Implementation

Our coalition developed these talking points to ensure our external messages about implementation were principled, consistent and strategic. We used these talking points to guide our work with the press and utilized them at other public presentations. We focused on key messaging areas that we knew we wanted to emphasize or that we wanted to address if they were to come up. We also tried to focus the media on the bigger picture, instead of on the challenges (unless we were strategically using media to push the administration on a particular implementation issue), knowing that our rights were always under attack and that RTC wasn’t a full right until implementation was complete. One of the challenges with Right to Counsel is that the vast implementation process included initial growing pains and naysayers. In the beginning of our movement, some staff of organizational members spoke negatively to the press about RTC because implementation was so challenging. Not only did that undermine the win and the movement, but most of the people who were speaking to press in this way were not tenants facing eviction! We also want to emphasize that during implementation, you will still be organizing and advocating, and the opposition will look for ways to undermine and negate the win. Accordingly, when we created messaging documents during particular moments in the campaign, we asked organizational leaders to implement the press strategy within their organizations.

Our talking points can be adapted for use by your coalition to guide your messaging about Right to Counsel.

Working Groups for Implementation and Ongoing Organizing

Developing working groups within your coalition is a helpful way to guide your ongoing organizing work and campaign implementation. This helps ensure that there are people in your coalition moving forward key aspects of work, and that the work is organized and coordinated. These groups also helped to structure large coalition meetings. During our two hour meetings, we would almost always break out into the working groups to complete targeted work and this reduced the amount of meetings overall. We would then join the larger group to share report- backs and discuss other campaign work. Here we share the working groups our coalition created during the implementation stage of the campaign. While your coalition will have unique needs based on your local context, our groups may be a helpful model as you think through your coalition structure and priorities in this phase of your campaign.

Tools for Outreach, Tenant Engagement and Education

We developed the tools in this section to educate tenants, legal service providers, lawyers and the general public to understand how the Right to Counsel would work and look like throughout New York City and we circulated general outreach flyers throughout the five boroughs. The legal landscape of implementation will look different in your city, but we hope these tools will serve as a guide for educating and spreading the word about the right when you win it!

Included in this section:

  • Frequently Asked Questions: A “know your rights” type document that answers the most pressing questions for tenants about Right to Counsel.
  • Facilitation Guide and Q&A for Panels and Presentations on Right to Counsel and Implementation: Designed to educate the public on implementation.
  • New Website–Eviction Free NYC: We created a new website to help tenants navigate RTC and connect with attorneys and community groups!

Frequently Asked Questions About the Right to Counsel

Our coalition developed this frequently asked questions document to ensure that tenants understood Right to Counsel, how it would be be rolled out, how to assess their eligibility and how to access an attorney. We had to develop tools like this because the city bureaucracy moved so slowly. In addition, crafting these document enabled us to control the narrative and ensure our key organizing messages were included. The FAQ also emphasized our coalition’s message that evictions are about power, race and class, and that Right to Counsel is a tool in combating evictions that was won after years of hard organizing. The FAQs are featured on our website, were blasted through social media and massively distributed in the community through all of our community outreach work. We’re also including a link to a page of our website called “My Rent is Too High-How Does RTC help me?” that helps tenants determine if their high rent is legal or not.

Facilitation Guide and Q&A for Right to Counsel and Implementation

After we won, we were asked to join various panels, conferences, workshops and meetings, and we also planned our own events to help spread the word. The Q&A we are including in this section was created to help a tenant leader prepare to speak on a panel. We continued to receive invitations, and we used the tool for future panel preparation. Having a Q&A document like this one helps refine your messaging and ensures that your story about Right to Counsel is being told and it also helps to develop leaders!

The second tool is an agenda for one of the panels we planned and organized. The focus of this particular panel was to provide important organizing context and history for the Right to Counsel, to discuss ongoing goals and priorities for implementation, and to inspire others to take up the fight for Right to Counsel in their own cities. This agenda format is one we used throughout various panels and presentations, so it’s easy to adapt to different contexts.

EvictionFree NYC

One of the main challenges of implementation is being able to address issues as they arise in real time. If you are a tenant facing eviction, how do you know if RTC applies to you and if it does, how do you then connect to an attorney? While we are waiting on and pushing the City to develop a hotline and build neighborhood-based clinics to address tenants’ issues, we had to develop tools to help tenants! We worked with JustFix.NYC to develop the Eviction Free NYC website which provides a clearinghouse for everyday New Yorkers facing eviction to determine their eligibility for Right to Counsel based on their income and address and connect them to tenant attorneys and community organizing groups. In order to create the most informative website, we toured every City court, documented how RTC worked in each particular courthouse and then generated specific court-based instructions for every borough. We then gave those guides to tenant organizers to help them explain how the court system works in their borough, and we used those guides for the basis of the new website. We also had to gather a lot of contact information for the legal services organizations as well as the tenant organizing groups. This required multiple resources and it’s one of the campaign components we raised funds for.

We created postcards with the website’s address and key information and constantly disseminated the postcards. Initially the website was only in English and Spanish, but we were able to fundraise to translate it into French and Haitian Kreyol and hope to translate it into even more languages soon!

The website was created on a user-friendly platform and is easy to update on our end, but this is an ongoing project as the implementation changes and expands. When we released the website, we circulated press releases on social media to help get the word out.

Tools for Ongoing Community Organizing

After the win, a whole new campaign to ensure a just implementation of the law commenced. In NYC, the law funds lawyers, not organizers, which is something we are working to change. We began to organize to answer specific questions. How do we ensure that every New Yorker knows about this right? How do they claim it as their own and use it to unleash organizing potential and build the tenant movement? While there is a lot of work to do around implementation, the majority of our resources go to support this work and answer these questions.

We invite you to use these tools when the time comes to expand into the next phase of right to counsel in your city.

The tools in this section include:

  • Right to Counsel 2.0: The Work to Come: We share our vision for continued organizing to strengthen the Right to Counsel.
  • Town Hall Guiding Agenda: To organize and facilitate public meetings in which implementation is outlined.
  • Town Hall Phone Banking Script: A succinct script for phone bankers to use when calling community members to inform them about town hall meetings.
  • Supporting Tenant Organizing: Ten tools designed to guide ongoing organizing:

    • Principles
    • Organizing timeline
    • Town hall phone banking
    • Overview of organizing with RTC
    • Worst Evictors List
    • Evictions Pamphlet
    • Our demands to make NYC eviction free
    • Rent strikes as an organizing tool
    • People’s Tribunal on Evictions
    • Tenant Movement History Timeline

Town Hall Guiding Agenda

After the win, it was important to continue to meet as a community, not only to inform the public of how the new right would work, but to continue to build tenant power. After the bill was passed, we held 5 town halls, one in each borough, and we are sharing the guiding agenda here so you can see what went into the planning phase. Part facilitation guide and part agenda, the document offers goals and materials needed for the meeting and options for activities.

Supporting Tenant Organizing

Organizing Principles for Right to Counsel Implementation Phase

As you move into the phase of organizing that happens after your Right to Counsel bill is passed, having primary organizing principles to guide your work is important. These principles will inform your work within your coalition, your ongoing organizing planning and your targets and tactics.

Here we share our organizing principles. You may want to revise these to fit with your coalition’s priorities, or brainstorm your own principles separately.

Timeline and Plan for Organizing After RTC Win

After Right to Counsel is won, there is a lot of work to do to make sure tenants know their rights and claim them. And because our legislation didn’t fund community organizing or outreach, there was no mechanism built in to make sure that tenants know and feel worthy and powerful in using their new right! Our coalition found it helpful to develop a timeline with key organizing steps laid out throughout the year, as well as broader tasks such as outreach materials to develop, outreach activities, and places at which relationships should be built. Here in NYC, neighborhood-based community organizing groups are working on implementing the timeline in their neighborhoods. Because our roll out is by zip code, the outreach and organizing work is focused in the neighborhoods where RTC is being implemented. Documents like this one ensure that our organizing remains strategic and coordinated, and they also reflect the collective thinking of a large committee of tenant leaders and organizers. We share our timeline and planning document here for your coalition to use as a model.

RTCNYC Town Hall Phone Banking Script

Holding town halls was an effective way for us to reach out and share information with communities about the Right to Counsel legislation. We relied on coalition members to volunteer and spread the word about these events. We’ve included a script for phone banking that we developed to reach out to tenants. You’ll see that we typed out guided instructions for volunteers to follow, including how to engage people who were not able to attend. It was also important that we provide brief context and history of the right to counsel. Simply tailor the script to include the relevant event information and historical context so that your phone bankers are prepared.

Overview of Organizing in RTC Zips—What’s Different About It?

This document was designed by the coalition to be used by organizers. It lays out key steps organizers should take when working in buildings that are in zip codes that qualify for Right to Counsel, ranging from ensuring that tenants know they have the right to counsel (even if they don’t have an active case) to helping identify tenants at risk of eviction to set up rapid response defense and explore actions like eviction blockades. Documents like these, that tie Right to Counsel to larger organizing efforts, are an important part of the ongoing campaign.

While Right to Counsel implementation and organizing may look different in your local context, your coalition can use this document as a model when thinking about your own guidance to organizers.

Worst Evictors List

The Worst Evictors List started as an outreach idea. We were brainstorming how to reach the people most impacted by evictions to make sure they knew about the right to counsel. Our organizers wanted to think strategically about outreach, education and organizing around the right to counsel. We knew there weren’t enough organizers to talk to everyone that had the new right, so we decided to target buildings with a lot of violations, but the tenants we came across mostly needed repairs in their units, and we needed to get to tenants who were facing evictions. That’s when we started to compile lists of buildings by eviction. Once we saw the overwhelming amount of data on this, we felt compelled to repeat the process and share the data annually. We’ve since published the list twice, but we didn’t do it in 2020 since there was an eviction moratorium in place across the city due to COVID-19. We also used the list as an organizing tool to advocate to the city to not fund any of the worst evictors, to pull funding from them when possible and to investigate the worst evictors.

Creating the Worst Evictors List in NYC is possible because there are multiple organizations and groups in the city who use data as a social justice tool. We encourage you to seek out similar groups in your city and include data folks in the movement!

Here is the Worst Evictors List and an accompanying flyer we created for 2018’s lists.

We’re sharing here an outline for a week of planned actions to put the evictors on notice.

Also: a template Run of Show for one of the actions during action week.

Also: sample talking points for talking to tenants about the Worst Evictors List.

Evictions Pamphlet

We created this pamphlet for a few important reasons. We wanted to encourage tenants to use the right to counsel and we wanted to illustrate to the public what tenant attorneys can do in court. It was also really important for us to encourage people to stay in their homes and prevent self-evictions. We know that a lot of people move when their landlord threatens them or sends them a rent demand. Our hope is that more people and families will fight to stay in their homes knowing that they’d be represented in court in the event their landlord made good on their threat to evict.

Our demands to make NYC eviction free

The right to counsel is an organizing tool, both in terms of how it’s used and in what it could help build in NYC’s tenant movement. After the implementation, we saw that landlords were suing less and that eviction rates were dropping, but we knew that right to counsel was not going to stop all evictions. This led us to a three-month planning, brainstorming and visioning process that culminated in a retreat where we focused on what legislative win would help make NYC eviction-free.

We thought about how the right to counsel helps stop evictions once they start, we wanted to get at stopping them from starting in the first place! When we were told that doubling the income threshold for right to counsel would cost too much, one of our answers was that if the City investigated the worst evictors and stopped them from suing tenants, then right to counsel would cost much less! During the retreat, we thought of ways that the City could work to change landlord behavior and what was permissible; what would actually stop them from evicting people. Our focus was to determine what it would take to make the right to counsel less necessary, and the demands we’re sharing here reflect that thinking.

We released the demands at the People’s Tribunal on Evictions in fall of 2019. Our demands include the Clean Hands legislation, which would bar landlords from being able to bring eviction cases if they have open building violations, which we introduced before the COVID-19 pandemic.

These demands also help to organize people who have the tools to fight evictions, so that they can fight to change the system that makes evictions possible.

We’re sharing the Demands as well as a sample retreat agenda where we identified and narrowed down our demands. The agenda includes a newspaper visioning activity and we’re including instructions for that here as well. The activity is part of Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community, page 21.

Rent strikes as an organizing tool

One of the core principles of right to counsel is that it should unleash tenant organizing potential and allow tenants to take bold actions and do things they wouldn’t normally do.

A good example of the collective power of tenants who have the right to counsel is Gates Place in the Bronx, which has a large population of undocmented tenants. The owner instituted a building-wide rent increase which the tenants protested because the increases were likely to result in mass displacement. Based on the location of the building, all of the tenants had the right to counsel and an organizer working with the tenants presented the idea of a rent strike as a tool to prevent the mass evictions and leverage tenant’s demands. About 25 tenants decided to strike. The landlord sued 3 tenants in housing court as a test of power, but each day during the proceedings, nearly all the tenants showed up to court along with the press and media. Because of the sustained power of organizing, the landlord eliminated the building-wide rent increase! We saw how powerful rent strikes were and the tenants shared how having the right to counsel was a key part of their decision to take such bold action. Before COVID-19, rent strikes hadn’t been a widely used tool since the 1960’s.

We spent time thinking about how to make the case for rent strikes and we’re sharing here supporting documents we put together:

  • The case for going on rent strike
  • Steps to coordinate a rent strike in your building
  • An accompanying interactive activity
  • Rent Strike toolkit
  • Legal support guide for rent strikes

The legal support guide to rent strikes is something we put together during the pandemic, in an effort to orient the lawyers in doing group/collective work. We still hold these training sessions for RTC attorneys.

People’s Tribunal on Evictions

The People’s Tribunal was our way of demonstrating that evictions are not tenants’ fault and envisioning a world where landlords are held accountable. During the tribunal, tenants shared their demands and a jury of issued verdicts based on testimony. We could have a whole separate toolkit on the Tribunal! Rather than share the multitude of information we have on this topic, we’re linking to the section of our website that has information on the powerful Tribunal we held in 2019. For those that are especially interested in learning more about how to organize and hold a People’s Tribunal, please email us at info@righttocounselnyc.org and we will happily share more information with you!

For a glimpse into the process, we’re sharing here a facilitator’s agenda, a guide on how to prepare testimony, a detailed overview of the event, and our outreach flyer for the Tribunal.

Tenant Movement History Timeline

This timeline is as fun to watch as it was to make and our hope was that folks in other cities could do something similar using the Global Action Project’s Movement History Timeline Technology.

The tools we’re sharing below are included in other sections of the Toolkit, but we’re linking them here below in this section as well.

We’re also sharing training materials that we used. We used a train-the-trainer model for folks who wanted to teach others about the importance of RTC’s narrative and timeline.

Supporting the Development of Zealous Movement Attorneys

One of the challenges from the onset with implementing the right to counsel was attorney capacity to represent tenants. In the beginning, the pool of available attorneys we had was small, and capacity was limited. Although we could hire new attorneys fresh out of law school to join us, there really wasn’t a tier of supervising attorneys to supervise the newer attorneys. We realized that this was a movement-wide issue, and also a citywide issue. This is how the Housing Justice Leadership Institute was born. We formed it as a training center for supervisors, and the focus went even beyond that. We wanted to address what it means to be a supervisor for attorneys within the Right to Counsel framework, for them to understand what it means to work in the movement and be accountable to the movement. Logistically, the leadership supervision and management skills training lasts 10 days. We’re proud to say the program is still ongoing, with two cohorts every year and is housed at New York Law School.

Although the Housing Justice Leadership Institute is an integral part of sustaining the movement in NYC, we acknowledge that starting something similar in a different locality is very challenging, and to that end, we’re sharing the following documents not as tools to recreate what we did in NYC, but for informational purposes.

Included here are:

  • Brochure, with program information and application.
  • Initial press release

Neighborhood-based meetings between RTC organizers and lawyers

In an effort to orient new housing attorneys and ground them in what it means to be an attorney in the movement, we went around to many different legal services organizations and gave presentations about what RTC is and how we won it.

This felt necessary after the win. Organizers felt a disconnect with attorneys in the neighborhoods they were working in, and wanted to deepen their relationships with attorneys and connect with them on organizing strategies. Organizers wanted to forge relationships, to get to know attorneys and discover new organizing opportunities together and hold them accountable to the principles of the movement. We needed attorneys to know who we were. If they had clients (tenants) in buildings that we were already organizing in, it was important to us that the attorneys knew who we were, and that they knew what questions to ask of tenants. We essentially wanted to ensure that they were well-rounded and engaged in the eviction-defense movement, and not solely focused on traditional individual representation.

These training were led by local tenant leaders and tenant groups and were held all across the city and some were monthly and semi-monthly until the pandemic. Here are some more of the goals of these meetings:

  • Make our goals and work explicit. Being explicit also creates space to hold attorneys accountable
  • Build relationships. Identify people in meetings who seem interested, ask critical questions, etc., and find time to meet with them one on one, and work to recruit them to the Tenant Organizing vision.
  • Come out of the meeting with next steps and agreements about working together.
  • Don’t have expectations. We’ll keep doing the work and we have each other.
  • Present the Tenant Organizing vision with them and ask them if they want to be partners.

Included are:

  • Sample introduction email
  • Sample meeting agenda

List of Essential Trainings for RTC attorneys

Our coalition includes a monthly legal support working group, and in the beginning of the rollout, participating organizers and tenant leaders realized that there was essentially no comprehensive training for on-the-ground RTC attorneys. We implemented the Housing Justice Leadership Institute for supervisors, but there was a strong need for attorneys to receive specific training in order to understand the intersecting issues that arise during eviction defense. We also incorporated the Tenant Movement History into our training for new attorneys in NYC.

To address this need, we came up with our own curriculum that we wanted attorneys to learn from. We’re excited to share that our curriculum will be rolled out in the fall of 2021.

Included are:

Taking our show on the road: Presentations to law school students

An important part of movement building is recruiting a new generation of legal advocates. We put together presentations for law school students with the goal of connecting with and recruiting them to join the movement and become tenant attorneys. Part of that work is to connect with law school students who come from communities impacted by gentrification and displacement, and those who have experienced the trauma of housing court. We also take the time to clear up any misconceptions of what it means to be a tenant attorney. As part of the presentation, law school students hear from current attorneys and organizers who emphasize the importance of implementing the first right to counsel, what it’s like to be a part of a much larger movement and that eviction defense is a racial justice issue–all in the hopes that it resonates and inspires future attorneys to join us. These presentations also include information on the current job market for tenant attorneys in New York City, which we also link to on our website, and we encourage you to include similar information for the job market in your city in your outreach materials!

We’re sharing here:

  • The outline for the presentations
  • Sample outreach email to law schools
  • Orientation to RTC for new tenant attorneys (sample agenda)