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Assemblymembers Raga and Ardila join dozens of Woodside residents fighting for statewide right to counsel

Several of the attendees at the townhall held on Feb. 21, 2024. QNS Photo

Feb. 25, 2024 By Czarinna Andres and QNS Staff

Several non-profit groups held a town hall meeting in Woodside Wednesday evening where they advocated for the statewide right to counsel for tenants facing eviction.

The event, held at the St. Sebastian’s Parish Center and called Queens United: Town Hall for Right to Counsel,” was attended by Assembly Members Steven Raga and Juan Ardila, along with dozens of residents and the leaders of Woodside on the Move and Catholic Migration Services.

The town hall, which was led by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition (RTC NYC), an advocacy group that wants tenants facing eviction across the state to be provided with free counsel, featured a teach-in explaining the organization’s demands, including $300 million in the New York City budget to fund legal aid for tenants.

Raga, a Woodside native who holds the Assembly District 30 seat, said Wednesday night that he had first-hand experience of the trauma of being evicted, adding that right to counsel can help protect tenants in court.

“I was raised by an immigrant single mother who was evicted multiple times,” Raga said Wednesday.

Assemblymember Raga speaking at the townhall held on Feb. 21, 2024. QNS Photo

“I could see how being in such an unstable environment, especially as a child, can really turn your world upside down. Something like this (RTC) can help prevent and deter the moral wrong of a landlord trying to push you out.”

RTC NYC led the campaign to introduce right to counsel legislation in New York City, which was signed into law by former mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017. The law promises legal representation in Housing Court to any resident facing eviction whose income is 200% of the federal poverty level or less.

The group claims the law has had a positive impact on tenants facing eviction, stating that 84% of tenants who accessed legal counsel under the law have won their case in Housing Court.

However, Katy Lassell, campaign organizer with RTC NYC, said many New York City tenants are still facing the court without legal representation because they are unaware of right to counsel. She said RTC seeks legislation that requires courts to make tenants aware of this right before a case is heard.

Furthermore, she added, many cases proceed so fast that tenants do not have time to obtain legal counsel. RTC NYC is calling on the courts to slow down eviction hearings to give tenants time to obtain counsel.

The non-profit is seeking protections for tenants across the Empire State. It seeks right to counsel on a statewide basis and is additionally calling for an extra $300 million in funding to ensure that New York City tenants can avail of legal counsel in Housing Court.

The coalition is pushing for the passage of three bills in the New York State Legislature, including the Statewide Right to Counsel bill, which will guarantee all New Yorkers access to a free attorney when facing eviction. The bill also sets out the need for $172 million in funding for the program.

It is also calling on the legislature to pass the Winter Eviction Moratorium, which would prevent judges from issuing eviction warrants between Oct. 1 and May 31, and the Defend Right to Counsel bill, which mandates that the state court system upholds local right to counsel laws in New York City and Westchester.

Raga said right to counsel legislation has been demonstrably positive for tenants in New York City but said it needed to be expanded to cover the entire state.

“People are better off than we were when it wasn’t there. We’ve seen how it could help and we need to spread this outside the city, but also fund it so that more folks in the city can access and be protected. There’s nothing wrong with protecting our New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable.”

The Statewide Right to Counsel bill has received the support of 32 senators (51%) in the New York State Senate, while 62 assembly members (41%) have endorsed it in the State Assembly.

Meanwhile, Raga said more than 30 assembly members have supported a call for the provision of $172 million in the state budget for right to counsel.

“It’s a good sign that we have 30-plus assembly members signing onto the budget letter. It shows that there’s overwhelming support for it,” Raga said.

He added that community events such as Wednesday’s town hall, which drew around 60 participants, are pivotal to the success of the statewide right to counsel movement.

“These are natural, organic events that help spread the word and show how we can support each other,” Raga said. “That sets the tone and gives guys like me a chance to prove in Albany that this isn’t an abstract, theoretical thing. I can show that people need it, people are organizing for it, and people deserve it.”

Ardila, who holds the Assembly District 37 seat, said Wednesday that statewide right to counsel is “incredibly important,” especially for minority communities.

Assemblymember Ardila speaking at the townhall held on Feb. 21, 2024. QNS Photo

“This is something that’s very personal for me because we see how many communities of color and undocumented immigrants suffer from this due to a lack of representation navigating the legal system,” Ardila said Wednesday. “They are not the only ones, but they are often time victims of unscrupulous landlords or unscrupulous evictions.”

Representatives from local community groups said Queens tenants are still facing the Housing Court without legal representation.

Bryan Fotino, tenant organizer with Catholic Migration Services, said the group frequently travel to Queens Housing Court to support local tenants who are facing evictions without legal counsel.

Frances Macalimbon Hamed, a policy and advocacy coordinator with Woodside on the Move, said she has also seen Queens tenants face the Housing Court without legal representation and added that some tenants are simply not aware of the Right to Counsel law.

“All New York City residents should be made aware that in NYC if they meet certain eligibility requirements they may be eligible for Right to Counsel. Often, many of the tenants Woodside on the Move encounters at Housing Court are unaware of their Right to Counsel and are forced to defend themselves alone,” Macalimbon Hamed said.

“Evictions are traumatizing. Evictions destabilize families and entire communities. And evictions have both immediate and long-term emotional, social, and economic implications.”

email the author: news@queenspost.com

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