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Millions of Americans risk being evicted. This tenants rights lawyer says the courts aren’t prepared.

“The pace we were going at before the pandemic was unsustainable.”

A protester walking down a street carries a sign that reads, “Protect people not property. Cancel rent.”
Tenants and housing activists gathered in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in July to demand the city cancel rent.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Eviction lawyers at the Legal Aid Society are used to working overtime. New York City’s venerable pro bono social justice firm has never known a lull throughout the 144 years it has represented tenants around the five boroughs. In that sense, staff attorney Diana Li knew exactly what she’d be up against as the coronavirus pandemic slowed the world to a halt.

Every day, she speaks to new clients complaining of landlord harassment and ongoing maintenance neglect. Li says that the volume of cases wasn’t surprising; as a public defender, she’s used to burning the midnight oil. Instead, the most profound frustrations of the Covid-19 era are found in the bureaucracy around the edges. Simply put, New York’s court system was not prepared for a pandemic.

The State Legislature brushed aside basic modernizations for decades, and the archaic inefficiencies of the system are rearing their ugly heads. Legal Aid lawyers keep their ears to the ground because the contours of tenants rights seem to change by the hour. First, nobody was allowed to be evicted in the state until June 20. Then it was September, and now it’s October 1, as the parameters for who that moratorium encompasses continues to shrink. The only thing predictable about being a tenant attorney in 2020 is that, just as before, there are millions of people in need.

Li says that her role at the Legal Aid Society is akin to a paramedic in an emergency room. There are so many individual crises in New York City that she often finds herself focused strictly on keeping her clients’ heads above water. That said, she is heartened by the global recognition of some of the long-standing structural issues that this pandemic has brought to light. The US is barreling toward an unprecedented housing crisis as between 30 million and 40 million Americans are at risk of being kicked out of their homes. There’s never been a more crucial time to analyze the dysfunction at the heart of our nation. We talked about that, as well as the technical hangups of virtual court and the lack of respect landlords have for the moratorium.

So when did you realize that your job was going to change?

Back in March, not everyone knew that everything was going to be shut down. There was this feeling that we might be working at home, but we’d still be going to court. But then the announcement came out that we weren’t going in anymore. That really changed the pace of our work. Our clients can’t afford attorneys, and our cases are supposed to be turned around quickly. There’s a pressure when you’re representing tenants that someone might get evicted next week or that a pay date might come. So, we thought this quarantine might be a breather. It’d be horrible to evict anyone during a pandemic.

The courts were really ill-equipped to handle virtual proceedings. It’s taken them a long time to get to a basic operating level, and there are still so many kinks in the system. They were already really reluctant to enter the 21st century, so there’s still no great answers.

What are some of the most frustrating issues you’ve found in the pivot to digital court?

We started receiving emergency referrals, because one of the things we set up really quickly were hotlines for tenants to call us if they had concerns. Before, a lot of our referrals happened physically at the courts. My first emergency case from that was a woman who hadn’t had heat, with some serious structural concerns with the apartment. We received the email of a petition that she had filed to the court on her own, and that included a phone number. We were told to reach out to her that way. I called it, and it wasn’t connected. We followed up with the city, saying, “Hey, do you have another number for us?” They gave us one, and it also didn’t work.

This was problematic because this woman didn’t know that we were trying to get in touch with her. She didn’t know that the referral had happened. The morning of the hearing, I asked my supervisor what I was supposed to do. We emailed the clerk to say that the city requested us to be on this case. We coordinated all day. They asked us if we were representing this person, and we had to be honest and say that we never met her. The city was planning on calling her, but because her number wasn’t working, that obviously couldn’t happen.

So I’m on hold all day trying to figure out what to do, because they’re not going to throw out the case. They gave us two weeks to try and get in touch with this client. We had our office send a priority mail letter to her, and I never heard back. The two weeks pass, and they call me that this woman had appeared in court. Like, she went to the courthouse, which was troubling, because technically, nobody was supposed to do that during the shutdown. Apparently, the court wasn’t telling tenants that they didn’t need to physically appear.

Basically, what ended up happening was the clerk allowed me to have five minutes to talk to her over Skype before they brought in the judge. I tried speaking to her, saying, “This is who I am, we can represent you.” And I couldn’t understand her. She had a mask on, the audio wasn’t great, the video wasn’t great. It was unclear whether or not she wanted us to represent her. The judge came on and asked if she wanted an interpreter or adult protective services, or if there was someone we could call who takes care of her. There was a lot lost in translation, and after a half-hour, we still couldn’t determine if she wanted our help. At the end of the day, the judge said we couldn’t retain the client because we had no way of contacting her. That was just a case that we couldn’t appear on. It was incredibly chaotic.

Did you guys experience a surge of inquiries at the beginning of the pandemic as so many businesses were shutting down and people realized they couldn’t pay their rent?

At the time, the hotline wasn’t well known. But the calls we were getting the most were from people who were trying to break their leases. Those aren’t questions we’re used to, because they were coming from college students who wanted to move back in with their parents. It was different. If it’s, “I don’t know if I can pay rent,” that’s a normal day for us before the pandemic.

What’s the typical coronavirus-era Legal Aid case? From the people you’re talking to and the issues you’re seeing, what have been the trends now that we’re six months into this?

What’s surprising to me is how much hasn’t changed. A lot of people have said this, but this pandemic has shined a light on things that were not working. The experience that my clients have are similar in character, but they’ve increased in magnitude.

Now that we have people’s attention, the question is what’s going to happen, and what we’re going to do about it. There’s a concern that it will just go back to how it was before, but we’ll be worse off because everyone’s been worse off during this time. The main differences are the logistics and how much of our work now involves paying really close attention to politics and executive orders. The things that ordinary people don’t focus on.

Have you run into any clients who aren’t aware that some of those newly passed legal protections are in place?

There are a few. There’s a lot of people who are aware that there’s a moratorium, but they might not know the details about it, so they’re very anxious. Landlords can serve notices again, saying things like, “If you don’t pay this we’re suing you in court.’”And people have a lot of questions about the timeline with that. It changes every week. It’s a constant struggle to stay updated and make sure that the courts are listening to us and our concerns.

How respectful have landlords been toward the moratorium in New York?

There’s a lot of malicious acts. There are [landlords] still playing dirty tricks to get people out of their homes. There have been people who have been locked out. In one very extraordinary case, and this one wasn’t mine, but a landlord had moved in with a tenant in order to harass them to get out. I believe the idea was that the tenant would be afraid of catching coronavirus from the landlord, by sharing the same space. I wouldn’t say that everyone is in a gnarly situation, I have plenty of clients that aren’t. But there are enough of those scenarios out there that plenty of people have to file emergency petitions.

There has been a lot of talk about a potential eviction crisis in the future as all of these moratoriums expire around the country. How much thought have you been giving that?

A lot of people acknowledge that possibility, but I have a hard time imagining that much of a difference. The pace we were going at before the pandemic was unsustainable. It’s hard to feel good about the quality of your work and how much you can do for an individual when there is so much need. The court often feels like an eviction mill. The idea that there’s going to be an unprecedented number of cases filed — on a practical basis, it’s hard to imagine that it will be that much more. Before this, everyone was working overtime so that all of these cases could be pushed through as fast as they could. This is really dark, but there’s a limit to how many people can be evicted in a day. It feels like we were already working at an extreme pace before things shut down.

Has there been anything about this crisis that has made you more passionate about your job?

I would say so. The attention this has, it’s no longer about individual crisis management. It’s about looking at the larger picture and addressing the real problems. Oftentimes, we’re the legal equivalent of an emergency room. You’re just triaging a lot of situations. But is there more affordable housing? Is there meaningful change? No.

If someone wants to get involved in the housing justice movement in an effective way, where should they turn?

Tenant power is in tenant activism. I’d say the best and most effective way for someone to be involved in the housing justice movement is to join their local tenants’ union or help a tenants’ union if one doesn’t exist in their community. I know that it can be daunting to enter these spaces for the first time, and most people have never participated in unions or organizing. But it’s so important to remember that you have to start somewhere and that you are not on your own.

If you don’t know how or where to start, there are entire networks of organizers to support you — go online, do some research, ask around. The collective knowledge and resources exist but folks do have to take the first step and participate. In New York, I would strongly recommend following and getting involved with or donating to the Right to Counsel Coalition and Housing Justice for All. They have spearheaded some truly inspiring campaigns and accomplished amazing things for tenants in New York. There’s only so much you can accomplish in a courthouse. We need meaningful policy changes right now, and from my vantage point, these changes can only be accomplished through collective action.

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