by Charlie Finnerty | [email protected]
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.
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.”
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.”