13. Profiles of Leaders in the RTC Movement

Tenant Profile: Randy Dillard, NYC Tenant, Member of Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA)

Randy Dillard is a resident of the Bronx, and is a single father of 5 children. He has been a CASA member for 6 years and a CASA leader for 4 of those years. Randy has been intricately involved in the city-wide Right to Counsel coalition since 2014. Randy was also appointed to a local community board in the Bronx, is a member of the Bronx Defenders, the National Action Network and he represents CASA on the RTCNYC Steering Committee.

Randy, a single father of 5, joined CASA after his own confusing and harrowing experience in Housing Court. “I was in court for 2 and a half years. I lost my Section 8 because of…problems with my mailbox… I didn’t receive any mail,” Randy explains. His landlord served him with eviction papers once Section 8 stopped paying their portion of the rent and he was not getting the repairs his apartment desperately needed. “Once the landlord sends you papers—you don’t even know how to begin to read them, how to understand. You receive another notice telling you to go to housing court, but what is housing court?” When he arrived at court, it dawned on him that he had seen the aftermath of housing court decisions before: “I used to see people moving out, but I thought that they were moving…I didn’t know they were being put out. So when I got to housing court…I stood in that long line and listened to people and said, ‘they’re in the same category that I’m in! They don’t know nothing, they’re just as scared as I was.’”

Going through housing court was a significant burden on Randy and his kids. “My son got arrested because my landlord was a police officer…they threw [the case] out when they found out he didn’t do what [the landlord claimed] he did….my daughter was a B student and her grades dropped to Ds and Fs, frightened that we would go to a shelter. These are all the things that you go through when you don’t have any knowledge of what these landlords do, that’s taking you to court for no apparent reason.”

After attending a legal clinic and Know Your Rights workshop at Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), Randy realized there were many people going through the same things he was and that they were defaulting on their cases without attorney representation. However, Randy says, “I was blessed because I had CASA, and I was blessed because I had an attorney who navigated the court system with me to win my case. I don’t want no family to go through what I went through. It was a living hell, a living nightmare, when you know that you can’t protect your children….so that’s why I’m with CASA, and CASA taught me how to advocate.” Randy notes that the mayoral administration tried increasing funding for tenant representation, but he was a strong advocate in the Coalition, pushing not just for increasing funding but for legislation making it a right. He says, “People can do away with pilot programs, they can defund it. But they can’t do away with a law. Passing Right to Counsel gives tenants the power to organize and not be afraid of their landlord because they know they have an attorney. It was important to us to pass this law as a right.

On the implementation of RTC being rooted in the principles of the Coalition, Randy says “moving from a statute to a place where the right is part of our culture is the foundation of all the work we are doing right now.” Having a right to counsel “can be abstract” for many tenants. To make the right a real source of tenant power, “requires people to know, understand and be able to access the tools they need.” For Randy, the best way to do this is through community organizing. In this way, the Coalition is moving to create “a culture shift…where the right to counsel becomes part of the culture.

Marika is currently the Director of the Tenant Rights Coalition at Legal Services NYC, a city-wide tenant rights project that partners with tenant organizers and utilizes proactive group litigation and community lawyering strategies to combat displacement and gentrification. Marika also represents Legal Services NYC on the Steering Committee of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

When you own the land, you have the power. You have the power to say who stays and who goes. You have the power to generate immense profit from that land” Marika says. She points to the history of dispossession, colonization and racist housing policy as the historical and ongoing context for New York City’s current housing landscape. As urban centers around the world over the past few decades have become “the locus for the accumulation of real estate capital. Folks who stand in the way of that, increasingly don’t have a place in this city, and increasingly face the risk of displacement. “This plays out entirely along racialized lines.” Working-class communities of color are being displaced and, in New York City, housing court is one of the key places where that displacement is legally enabled.

Since the win, the nature of housing court needs to evolve to reflect Right to Counsel, including how court personnel perform their roles, the physical layout of housing court itself, and the judges’ handling of cases. “Everything about the [housing court] system…has been a systemic response to the fact that on one side of the bar table, the tenant side, there was hardly ever an attorney. Now that tenants have the right to an attorney, everything about [housing court] needs to change to reflect that,” Marika asserts. She goes on to point out how the role of attorneys is shifting as housing court for tenants goes from “a place where I’m not going to get justice” to becoming a place where tenants can expect a “bigger defender system” fighting against all evictions.

The Coalition is working with law schools to educate new generations of lawyers on this historic right, and it is also working to shift attitudes of active and practicing housing lawyers. Tenant attorneys have historically been part of the system and were accustomed to being gatekeepers in deciding which cases merited representation and which ones did not, which essentially translated to “which tenants are worthy of representation and which are not?” Now that all tenants have a right to representation, tenant attorneys have to get out of the gatekeeper mindset and acknowledge that all tenants deserve representation to defend their homes. Also as Right to Counsel is phased in and scaled up, the Coalition is focused on ensuring that new tenant attorneys “understand the history of the tenant rights movement and come into the work as… an ally to that movement … that has required a big culture shift in our own sector.

Tenant Profile: Maria Lopez-Nunez, Community Organizer, Ironbound Community Corporation, Newark, NJ

Maria Lopez Nuñez is the Director of Environmental Justice and Community Development at the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ, where she has served as a community organizer for the past five years. Maria works on issues at the intersections of immigration, environmental and housing justice. She is a displaced Bushwick resident who hopes to not repeat the same story in Newark, which is one of the reasons why Right to Counsel is so important to her.

Originally from Honduras, Maria moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn as a young child. Maria’s family had been living in the same building for over 20 years when they were pushed out due to rising rents. Almost all of her neighbors were also forced to move over time and the neighborhood she grew up in was lost. Now a resident of Newark, NJ, she does not want to see this happen in Newark. In her immigration justice work, she saw again and again that undocumented tenants suffer disproportionately from landlord abuse. Maria sees Right to Counsel as a huge opportunity to defend Newark’s most vulnerable tenants.

New York City has made a strong case for Right to Counsel. Maria believes that it will be even more impactful nationwide when more mid-size cities like Newark adopt these protections, showing that New York is not the exception to the rule, as is often said.

Newark already has strong rent control laws, but during the short period (March 2017- September 2017) in which they were weakened in 2017 by the city council there was an immediate uptick in tenant eviction cases. During those months, landlords took advantage of vacancy decontrol laws, where they were able to increase rents by 30% after a vacancy. While local community organizers and active tenants began to push back on these practices, Maria says that “Right to Counsel wasn’t even on my radar…I was focused on inclusionary zoning, public housing, rent control laws.” After their historic win in 2017, RTCNYC reached out to Maria, and this motivated Newark organizers to start pushing for RTC in Newark.

Maria says, “Newark can’t afford not to pay for RTC, because as Newark puts up high rises, we need a safety net for those who will fall out.” Newark is currently working on Right to Counsel legislation but it is not yet a right. Maria notes “luckily we have this resource across the river so we can talk about what negotiation looked like in New York City, and the lessons we can learn from New York City.”

Tenant Profile: Lorena Lopez, Tenant Organizer at Catholic Migration Services

Lorena Lopez is a Tenant Organizer at Catholic Migration Services. She supports the organizing work through engaging, developing/educating and empowering immigrants and low income communities in Queens.

One of Lorena’s motivating factors for tenant organizing is to reverse the balance of power between landlords and tenants: “landlords own the land; they own the apartments, and what is supposed to be a fundamental right is used as a commodity. Landlords have made tenants believe that they can tell tenants what to do; what they cannot do; what they deserve and what they don’t, and it’s just paralyzing for tenants.” Lorena knows what goes through the minds of most tenants when they’re faced with the decision to fight back or give in. “Let me just back down. Let me stay quiet and just go with it. Whatever situation, I’m sure I can survive. Once tenants learn that they have rights, they fight and that’s how our members reacted.

Lorena sees the potential of Right to Counsel to change the organizing landscape. “We believe that Right to Counsel is a tool to really build power,” she says. “As organizers, as we do outreach and let folks know this right exists, we also want to talk about how we can use this right to change not only the culture of housing court, how tenants are treated and the outcomes of their cases, and create a space where landlords and their attorneys know and understand that tenants are not alone anymore, that there are many more attorneys on their side. But also use this right to change the culture within our neighborhoods, to feel bolder about telling landlords that their behavior is horrible, to come up with ways to fight evictions, to stop harassment and to show people in general that housing should be a right. Start using tactics that we haven’t used in a long time, or coming up with new tactics that we don’t even know could be possible like doing an eviction blockade or going back to rent strikes.” Seeing the bigger picture is motivating for Lorena and for tenants. “We’re really excited about where we are now and where we can take it, because we believe it’s the way to change the narrative. Now we think about, how much bigger can we go, how much farther can we go, if we want housing to be a right?