Originally published in The New York Times.
Agencies Join Forces to Aid Older Tenants
In New York's expensive and competitive housing market, many landlords seeking higher rents have become more aggressive in trying to evict older tenants.
To reach Dorothy Reid’s Brooklyn home last month, a visitor first had to walk past the gutted ground floor, whose boarded-up windows bore a sign reminding residents of police surveillance. Then it was up three flights of stairs, past a door secured by a huge lock and chain, to the two-bedroom apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant where she has lived for 25 years.
“It was really nice when I first moved in here,” she said, shaking her head.
Her walls were pockmarked with craters, the ceiling leaked, and she feared that lead paint would sicken her grandchildren. Yet, she said, her complaints to the building’s management had gone unanswered. But even worse, Mrs. Reid, 78, said that after several months without hearing from her landlord, she was stunned to receive an eviction notice. Mrs. Reid said she thought she had made all her rent payments, but it turned out that she had fallen behind.
In New York’s expensive and competitive housing market, many landlords seeking higher rents have become more aggressive in trying to evict older tenants, taking aim at a vulnerable population without the resources to defend themselves, housing advocates say. People like Mrs. Reid must then make their case in the labyrinthine system that is New York City’s Housing Court.
As a result, the city has started a project to help older residents threatened with eviction navigate the legal process.
The Department for the Aging and the New York Civil Court have combined resources, appointing lawyers to represent people in court and assigning social workers to help them get services they need to support themselves. This two-pronged approach, which was started in July in Brooklyn and Manhattan, has provided free help for scores of elderly tenants trying to stay in their homes.
“People unfortunately seemed to be falling through the gaps,” said Edwin Méndez-Santiago, the commissioner of the city’s Department for the Aging. “The beauty of this system is that we are not only able to fight the eviction, but we can really look at the root causes of what brought that senior to a particular point and begin to improve their overall quality of life.”
Judge Fern Fisher, an administrative judge for the Civil Court of New York, helped start the program after noticing an increase in eviction cases involving older people. “This is a very competitive real estate market, and many seniors fall victim to unscrupulous owners,” he said. “Our goal is to prevent evictions of seniors and replicate this program throughout the city. They are a population that needs help.”
The project serves people 60 and older and involves nine lawyers and four graduate students studying social work at different universities who conduct home visits. The visits often yield valuable information that can help the lawyers build their case.
“Clients of this age aren’t always able to express themselves and fully detail the conditions they’re living in,” said Eric Torres, a lawyer who represented Mrs. Reid, securing her a one-time Social Security payment to cover her back rent. “Their picture doesn’t always reveal the severity of the conditions. But the social workers are able to provide the details to make the case vivid and convincing. In some cases, I’ve used them as a witness.”
Heather Rehns, a social work student at Columbia University, was assigned to Mrs. Reid’s case and spoke on her behalf in court. “A lot of my clients aren’t given enough information to understand what’s going on, and they’re not really made to be part of the process,” she said.
Each social worker handles up to 15 cases and continues working with clients after they have gone before a judge; the continuity of care is considered the keystone of the project.
“They help you realize when you need to take an action that you may not have been aware of,” said Jacqueline Cara, another lawyer in the project. “And they can continue to work with them after the case, getting them a home help aide, Medicaid and Medicare, or helping them move and relocate, all of which is really beyond the scope of legal representation.”
For Gene French, 73, the program arrived like a Christmas blessing. In December, after she stopped baby-sitting, Ms. French fell behind on her rent in her Bedford-Stuyvesant rooming house and, at one point, shared her bedroom with her son as they attempted to pay her bills.
Facing eviction, she went to housing court in Brooklyn and was referred to the program. A lawyer was assigned to her case, and the day after Christmas, her social worker, Julie Rosenberg, began taking her to look at several assisted living centers, one of which is now her new home.
“She was great, just great,” Ms. French recalled. “I’m just trying to get settled now, but I can help myself and everything is much better for me here.”
Things are better for Mrs. Reid as well. Workers patched up the leaky roof in her apartment, and they will return to paint her walls. “We got things straightened out,” Mrs. Reid said, clasping her thin hands. “I’m glad they got a program like that. It’s somebody looking after you.”