Testimony by Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, before the New York City Council, Committee on Housing and Buildings jointly with the Committee on Community Development and the Committee on Land Use: Oversight – Building Homes, Preserving Communities: A First Look at the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Plan

October 14, 2014

Chair Ritchie Torres, Chair Arroyo, and Chair Greenfield, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak about “Housing New York, A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan,” the Mayor’s in-depth affordable housing plan. I am  Kamilla Sjödin,1 an Associate Director at the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers.  NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBT community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services.

We are testifying today because we would like to commend both the Administration and the Council’s recognition that New York has a current housing crisis. The Mayor’s Housing Plan is thorough and recognizes the acute housing problems faced by New Yorkers, as well as the fact that there is no one solution, and that a multifaceted approach is the key.  As a free legal services organization, we serve New York’s poor and see every day how our most vulnerable clients are evicted and displaced, oftentimes having no place to go.  Our work includes representing tenants citywide, as well as in Long Island and Westchester.  We have specialized projects, including, but not limited to, work with victims of Superstorm Sandy, veterans, the terminally ill, the elderly, the LGBTQ population, domestic violence survivors, and people with minor children in the home.  As such, our testimony is offered from the perspective that preservation of affordable housing is an absolute key to keeping people housed.  We see daily what happens when the Marshal comes and locks a tenant out.  We see mothers with small children who no longer have access to their children’s formula or diapers, children who don’t have a change of clothes to go to school, sick people who don’t have access to their medication, all because they were locked out.  We have even seen the Marshal lock out a paraplegic.  When the Marshal comes, a tenant only has a few minutes to grab what they can before they are physically removed and the locks are changed.  The process is humiliating and unnecessary and this happened nearly 30,000 times last year in the five boroughs alone.

In international human rights law the right to housing is regarded as a freestanding right. Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared in 1948: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” In 1991, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reinforced the guaranteed right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Given these authoritative interpretations – spanning decades – of the right to housing in legal terms under international law, it is NYLAG’s contention that the housing crisis in New York City is a human rights crisis, and must be addressed as such. Poor tenants facing eviction in Housing Court have long faced egregious problems regarding equal recognition before the law. Too many tenants with a proper defense go unheard and face immediate homelessness, leading to costlier outcomes for them, and for the City of New York. Everyone has a fundamental human right to housing, which ensures access to  safe, secure, habitable, and affordable homes with freedom from forced eviction. As the Mayor’s proposed housing plan implies, it is the government’s obligation to guarantee that everyone – irrespective of income or access to economic resources – can exercise this right to live in security, peace, and dignity.

One of the areas for which we would like to commend the Mayor is the increase in funding for legal services protections. Although, there has already been an increase in the number of people we can help, we believe that the right to counsel in Housing Court – just as in criminal court, should be made law in New York City.  Without a codified right to counsel in Housing Court, this funding for legal services can be removed at any time, once again leaving tenants vulnerable.

Additionally, although the Plan has many excellent ideas and proposals, my fear is that they cannot be implemented quickly enough to preserve neighborhoods.  Gentrification of formerly affordable neighborhoods, particularly in certain areas of Upper Manhattan, Northern Brooklyn and Northwestern Queens, is pushing out the communities that have lived there for decades.  Increased and preserved affordable housing in these neighborhoods is necessary to maintain the character and vitality of these historic areas.  Low-income people and racial minorities are increasingly being pushed out of these neighborhoods, and the five boroughs altogether, an outcome that will have a truly negative affect on the City as a whole. Anecdotally, I have occasion to visit the Washington Heights area regularly, and each time I am there, I can see the neighborhood changing:  there are more young, white families walking with strollers, jogging or walking their dogs.  Just a few years ago, this neighborhood was predominantly Dominican and Latino.

Because of the urgency to preserve housing and neighborhoods, we would like to recommend that, in addition to what is already included in the Mayor’s plan, those involved in working on its implementation further think outside of established norms and:

  1. Officially recognize housing as a human right at the Federal, State and City levels;
  2. Codify the right to counsel in Housing Court;
  3. Consider more immediate solutions such as a stay of evictions, perhaps limited to a certain types of housing or neighborhoods, until more affordable housing units are available;
  4. Call on the State to immediately repeal the State Urstadt laws, which restrict the City’s ability to regulate rent-related matters, and give the City power to regulate rent stabilization; and
  5. Implement a way for any housing plan proposals to be reviewed by an independent body that does not have a financial interest in the outcome of a given proposal.

We would welcome the opportunity to further discuss or comment on these matters in the future.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,
Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, Housing Law

1 For full disclosure, I am a former counsel to the New York City Council Committee on Housing and Buildings and the, at that time, Subcommittee on Public Housing.