Op-Ed: New York Tenants Need An Enforceable Statewide Right To Counsel

Two tenants explain why it's imperative that we actually have the Right to Counsel.

Daniel Osagie Inneh & Monica Ordoñes Apr 15

We are two Queens tenants whose landlords are evicting us. We represent over 176,771 households in eviction proceedings statewide and millions more who live in fear of landlord harassment and displacement.

I, Daniel Osagie Inneh, worked as a security guard. I experienced my worst nightmare when my contract was terminated with just a few days’ notice. I was devastated. The sense of stability I had worked hard to build was gone, replaced by fear that I might end up on the streets.

‘I’m not going to let the landlord play these games. I will keep fighting with my neighbors and my attorney to defend my rights.’ 

I remained hopeful because I knew that 84% of tenants represented by the Right To Counsel law (RTC) attorneys remain in their homes. However, my hope vanished on my first court date, when I learned that judges were refusing to uphold NYC’s RTC law. 

Instead of receiving an attorney, I was put on a long waitlist, where I remain today.

I’ve been filled with despair as I navigate housing court alone. The landlord’s attorney told me I needed to sign an agreement to pay my back rent, which I wouldn’t have been able to afford. I didn’t know if I had the right to say no.

I’ve also needed an attorney to help me research an overcharge defense that might allow me to stay in my home. My rent is over $1,000 higher than my next-door neighbor, who has the same apartment as me.

The challenges I’ve faced as I’ve tried to remain in my home are regularly experienced by tenants across New York State. That’s why I got involved in the campaign for the right to a free attorney for every New Yorker facing eviction.

The need for our legislation (New York Senate Bill S2721) is affirmed by support from over 200 organizations statewide, including 43 civil legal services providers. Statewide RTC also has a majority of cosponsors in the state senate and was in this year’s People’s Budget

Yet state leadership has failed to propose a true Right To Counsel this session. Both of the one-house budgets called for the establishment of a state agency to administer funds for eviction legal services. While this is a step in the right direction, it does not protect households suffering from evictions, as this proposed office has no mandate to enforce or fund a Right To Counsel.

We need Speaker Carl Heastie, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Gov. Kathy Hochul to pass and fund statewide Right to Counsel this year, with mandated adjournments that do not rely on the discretion of judges to uphold this right. 

The law must apply statewide without carve-outs for localities and counties that have an existing Right To Counsel law, because only the state government can regulate the court system.

Without RTC, our elected leaders are allowing landlords to systematically abuse the court system — in which they know most tenants are unrepresented — and regularly violate our rights.

•   •   •

I, Monica Ordoñes, know firsthand the need for an attorney to defend our rights. In 2019, I fell behind on rent when I lost my job due to a health condition that left me unable to walk. I sent the landlord what I could afford, but they still took me to court.

Luckily, I was assigned an attorney from a nonprofit legal services provider who informed me that we could turn this proceeding into an opportunity to get the repairs I needed. I called 311 and an inspector came to my apartment, recording 26 violations, including a severe leak in my bathroom.

The landlord has done everything in their power to force me out. They’ve scheduled appointments to make the repairs, only to never show up. They’ve called me “crazy” and “nasty.” They’ve threatened to call the police on me for attending tenant-association meetings. 

But I’m not going to let the landlord play these games. I will keep fighting with my neighbors and my attorney to defend my rights. 

There’s never been a more important time to fight to defend and expand our rights. Our communities are suffering while our state politics remain in the iron grip of organized, wealthy property owners. We are crushed by skyrocketing rents. Substandard housing threatens our health. Our exploitation is legitimized by a court system funded by the public, but systematically manipulated to serve the bottom line of landlords. 

While we fight to remain in our homes, the real estate lobby is attacking the rights strengthened in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. These attempts to roll back our hard-won gains are unacceptable. Elected leadership must protect working-class New Yorkers in this year’s budget–not leave us more vulnerable.

New York tenants need the passage and funding of a Statewide Right to Counsel! 

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