Fighting for the Rights of Tenants

WILLIAMSBURG – North and East Brooklyn contain some of the most subordinated neighborhoods in the nation. Of the total households in this area, 46 percent live below 125 percent of the federal poverty level (currently about $28,813 per year for a family of four). These poverty levels are significantly higher than the average for all Brooklyn (36 percent), as well as for New York City (29 percent). One of the largest issues low-income people in North and East Brooklyn are facing is a lack of affordable and proper housing.

Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, being part of Legal Services NYC (the largest organization exclusively devoted to providing civil legal services in the United States), provides neighborhood-based civil legal services to low-income individuals and community groups in North and East Brooklyn. Founded in 1968 by attorneys Samuel Wright and Cesar Perales, Brooklyn A currently has a core staff of ten lawyers working together with volunteers from several law schools in four different programs, including the “Preservation of Low-Income Housing”. Adhering to Brooklyn A’s fundamental mission of “striving for social and civil justice for the under-served”, all of its clients are poor, with incomes no higher than the federal poverty level.

Martin S. Needelman, Esq., Project Director and Chief Counsel of Brooklyn A, explains that Brooklyn A is providing legal assistance to many thousands of Brooklyn families, and represents a large group of tenant co-ops and associations in North and East Brooklyn. “During the last year we represented, next to individual persons, approximately 40 community groups and other groups, which is in total about 6,000 people,” Needelman says.

The kind of legal services Brooklyn A provides regarding its Preservation of Low-Income Housing Program, consists of representing tenants for public housing agencies, or the court, but also negotiating with landlords’ attorneys in housing court, and providing representation and advice to tenants when they receive a Marshal’s notice. In addition, the “housing-lawyers” of Brooklyn A represent tenants when illegal evictions occur, and also advocate for tenants when welfare or other benefits issues are the reason for a client facing eviction.

In a recent success story, at 172 North 8th Street in Williamsburg’s Northside, Brooklyn A achieved the exclusion from the building of the landlord whose intentional illegal demolition work let to a vacate order that has kept tenants from their homes for almost two years, according to Needelman. In addition, Brooklyn A managed to get the City to allocate over half a million dollars to repair the damages incurred, and have the tenants back in their homes before the end of this year.

Besides the necessary financial support, it is important for Brooklyn A to have, and to work closely with, its network consisting of twelve community driven non-profit organizations devoted to improving among other things, housing for  low-income people. Southside United Housing Development Fund Corporation (“Los Sures”) and North Brooklyn Development Corporation (“NBDC”) are just two examples of such co-operating non-profit organizations.

In its work to rebuild the Southside of Williamsburg, Los Sures has partnered with Brooklyn A for more than 30 years, according to Barbara Schliff, Director of Housing Resources of Los Sures.  “Everybody in the neighborhood trusts Needelman and the work that Brooklyn A provides,” Schliff says. “We could not have achieved what we have achieved so far over the years without them.”

NBDC serves its community members in North Brooklyn, and is devoted to among other things improving housing. “Brooklyn A is a real asset to our community. Without Brooklyn A there would be no defense, and people with no money would live on the streets,” says Mr. Richard Mazur, Executive Director of NBDC, who left Wall Street a long time ago with the goal to help the less fortunate in his neighborhood. “That is the reality.”

However, in providing free legal assistance to tenants and community groups, Brooklyn A is dependent on its donors. Without the financial support of donors, Brooklyn A cannot do its work. Currently, the financial support is decreasing as a consequence of the poor economy. “It has been a difficult year for Brooklyn A, as the poor economy and the changing role of government have resulted in major cuts in federal and other funding,” says Needelman. Most of the financial support of Brooklyn A, or 42 percent,  is provided by Legal Services Corporation. Other important financial resources are Government Contracts (20 percent), and Grants and Contributions (19 percent). Over the last five years, local, state and federal funding for legal services has decreased by over 50 percent. Brooklyn A will face an additional 30 percent cut in federal legal services corporation funds over the next two year.

“The funding costs have caused Brooklyn A to lose five staff members already,” says Needelman. “It makes a heavy impact on the work that we perform. Nevertheless, we will continue to protect the fundamental legal rights of our clients.”