Queens Community Orgs Host Town Hall on Tenant Right to Counsel Bill

by Charlie Finnerty |

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Woodside on the Move, the Right to Counsel Coalition, Chhaya, Catholic Migration Services and other Queens-based community organizations hosted a tenant organizing town hall Feb. 21 at St. Sebastian Parish Center in Woodside. Organizers spoke to tenants about Right to Counsel for ALL (A1493 / S2721), a bill proposed in the state legislature that would establish a right to legal services in eviction proceedings for all tenants across New York.

Attendees received presentations on what a right to counsel would mean for tenants and demonstrated how to provide feedback and testimony to elected officials. The bill is currently awaiting a new sponsor in the state assembly before it can move forward. District 30 Assemblymember Steven Raga and District 37 Assemblymember Juan Ardila also spoke at the event.

“The purpose and the goal of this event was really to just relaunch Right to Counsel’s legislative and budget campaign. That’s why we had the teach-in, but also it had the emphasis on statewide right to counsel and informing tenants about what that entails and providing testimony to support it and galvanize it,” Frances Hamed, policy & advocacy coordinator for Woodside on the Move, said.

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Tenants at the event spoke about their own experiences with housing court where many felt the judges were biased in favor of landlords who had access to legal representation.

“He has rights who dare to defend them,” one tenant said, speaking into a microphone at the front of the room. “We have to change how housing court judges are put on the bench in New York City. Housing court judges should be elected, not selected. Let them pay for a campaign and be elected.”

Another tenant spoke about how economic suppression of Latino communities adds an additional obstacle to housing burdens. His testimony was translated into English by event organizers.

“I’ve been in housing court fighting my case,” the tenant said. “It has been very traumatizing as a Latino person that we are people that do not have economic power.”

Yhamir Chabur, a housing and tenant organizer for Woodside on the Move, said he is inspired by advocacy and community organizing groups across Queens working together.

“Queens is getting closer to unifying itself,” Chabur said. “We have to keep the momentum going, because all of us experience this. It’s not fair that you have the landlord class and they’re easily able to have access to lawyers to represent them. This system supposedly says that it’s democratic because it’s capitalist, but yet it favors those that have access to capital.”

Raga, who was formerly executive director for Woodside on the Move before being elected to the State Assembly, spoke in support of the bill at the event, saying he feels hopeful there is support for it in Albany.

“It’s a broad coalition of folks that know that this is a moral issue,” Raga said. “Whether or not you have constituents in your district that are fighting for it, no matter what you should know that this is about right or wrong.”

Assembly Member Steven Raga speaks at the town hall. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Hamed said Woodside on the Move and their partner organizations fighting for Right to Counsel are focused on gaining more support for the bill in the state legislature.

“In terms of next steps, I feel it’s very important to garner the support of all the legislators who haven’t signed on,” Hamed said. “I feel confident that Right to Counsel will be something that we see implemented statewide, given all the testimonies we heard from the electeds and the tenants.”

Queens Lawmakers Rally for SMOKEOUT Act

By Celia Bernhardt |

State Assemblyperson Jenifer Rajkumar held a rally with State Senator Leroy Comrie and about 20 supporters on the steps of City Hall on Friday to call for the SMOKEOUT Act to be included in the State’s enacted budget.

The SMOKEOUT (Stop Marijuana Overproliferation and Keep Empty Operators of Unlicensed Transactions) Act, first introduced in early January, is Rajkumar’s proposed fix to the state’s bumpy rollout of cannabis legalization and the proliferation of thousands of illegal, unlicensed smoke shops through the five boroughs. Under the proposed rule, local municipalities would have the power to shutter illegal shops and seize all merchandise. Currently, that power is reserved for the State’s Office of Cannabis Management, which has only 14 inspectors statewide.

“I think all New Yorkers feel right now like they’re high, because they look at the situation and it makes no sense,” Rajkumar said at the rally. “There are 1000 times more illegal shops than there are legal shops. There’s only about 60 legal shops in the whole state. And there’s 36,000 illegal shops. How can this be? Am I high right now?”

Comrie told the crowd that the issue was consistently top of mind among his constitutents. “Every meeting I attend, everywhere I go, people want to see these places shut down,” he said. “The ones that have been inspected, they found rat feces in the basement. They found other chemicals that are being mixed in with the marijuana. You don’t know what you’re getting. You’re not getting it from a safe supplier.”

Rajkumar’s office estimates there are about 1,500 illegal shops in New York City alone. Previous estimates cited by Council Member Lyn Schulman this past summer put that number much higher, at 8,000. Mayor Eric Adams has claimed that if Rajkumar’s legislation is enacted, the city could shut down every illegal shop in 30 days.

“The state budget is due on April 1. That’s five and a half weeks from today. On April 1, I don’t want to be standing here saying ‘April Fools,’” Rajumar said. “I want to be standing here saying ‘we have put the SMOKEOUT Act in the state budget.’”

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