Maria Mottola Speaks at Symposium on Civil Rights and Access to Justice

Maria-Mottola-2Adapted from remarks delivered at the April 8 Symposium on Civil Rights and Access to Justice, organized by the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School.

In the mid-80s, I worked as a tenant organizer at a settlement house in Manhattan. New luxury buildings were going up overnight it seemed. A group of tenants from a building on 60th street and Second Avenue came to our walk-in clinic—they were frantic. They had received a vacate order from the Department of Buildings due to dangerous cracks in their building caused by construction next door. Although they were concerned about the building’s conditions, they also told us that the landlord had been pressuring them to move for months because the developers had offered her a fortune for the building.

It struck me that these tenants —some who have lived in the building most of their lives—were losing their homes through no fault of their own. And the consequences to these tenants would be dire: many were seniors or young families on fixed income. They would have few other options, and none of those options included staying in the neighborhood where they had lived for so long. How could they not have a right to an attorney?

My introduction to today’s topic was not law but social work, through my experience in working with tenants who were being evicted, seniors navigating benefits and health care, and families facing the complexities of HRA and family court. What I learned echoes what we will spend today talking about: there is a deep disparity in who has access to justice and this imbalance has a profound effect on people’s lives especially when cases involve basic human needs like housing, income security, ability to work, access health care, and keeping families together.

But it is more than that. If some people have access to justice and others don’t, our communities suffer: affordable housing is lost, neighbors are deported, workplaces are unsafe or treat workers unfairly, families can’t navigate issues at school, and vulnerable people go without basic services.

Today, I am feeling more optimistic than I did twenty years ago. Then, I was the director of the Citywide Task Force on Housing (now Housing Court Answers) and the idea of a right-to-counsel for tenants was relatively new—a forum we sponsored on the subject in 1993 drew a few dozen dreamers and optimists.

The conversation about right to council has changed dramatically since then. Thanks to people like Andy Scherer of the Impact Center, former-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, persistent tenant activists, and countless residents, the idea now seems within reach.

One thing that accounts for that change is that leaders in this movement have not simply waited around for things to change—they found creative ways to increase access to justice outside the traditional model of folks lining up at neighborhood legal aid and legal services offices. Today, there is far more coordination between community organizers and lawyers and excellent models for how they work together.

At the New York Foundation, we provide grants primarily to neighborhood groups to do community organizing and advocacy. It is rare these days for us to support work that doesn’t include some kind of partnership between our grantees and legal service attorneys. There are almost too many examples to name but here are a few:

  • Residents of neighborhoods in East New York, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and East Harlem are responding to the Mayors Housing Plan and rezoning efforts and demanding higher levels of affordability and protection for existing tenants. All of these efforts include partnerships between legal service providers and organizers.
  • Many of the workers centers we support—whether their members are day laborers, domestic workers, or nail salon workers—collaborate with legal service providers to win back wages and safer working conditions.
  • There are numerous examples of legal service providers partnering with immigrant groups to protect immigrants against deportation and ensure they know their rights.
  • Youth groups we support pair up legal service providers with young people to make sure they are accessing government benefits, understand their rights related to sexual harassment and violence, and know how to navigate encounters with police, family court, or the child welfare system.

Foundations are modest players in this work if you look simply at the amount of funding they provide. Locally and nationally, foundations contribute only about 10 percent of the funding for civil legal services. Only four foundations in NYC provided more than $1 million to civil legal services in NYC in 2012.

But foundation funding, even at smaller amounts, does things government money cannot.

Foundations can respond quickly in a crisis.

  • During the 2008 recession, the New York Community Trust responded quickly by supporting legal services for people facing a loss of benefits, bankruptcy, unemployment, and foreclosure.

Foundation funding can be a catalyst for creative and new work in an area.

Foundation funding can be less restrictive than public funding and allows legal service providers to take on complex, controversial cases that can’t be funded with government funds.

Although these examples give us hope, they don’t negate the need for a civil right to counsel, which would have a huge impact on the city and its poorest families.

It has taken a long time but thanks to the tenacity of many people in this room, there’s finally momentum around establishing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction in New York City. More than twenty years ago, Andy and I and others worked on a report that we called the Donaldson report, and argued that providing a right to counsel in eviction cases would save the city money by preventing people from losing their homes. (A report released just today by the New York City Bar Association estimates that NYC would save $320 million if it implemented a right-to-counsel in housing court).

But you have to remember, the prevailing point of view at that time was that people who had lost their homes, were in some way at fault. Earlier that year, the NYC Commission on the Homelessness, headed by Andrew Cuomo, released a report arguing that individual characteristics of homeless people distinguish them from the rest of us and that losing one’s home is primarily a consequence of personal failure or individual limitations.

Today, we are finally having a different conversation. Tenant advocates and others have shifted the conversation away from eviction as a consequence of bad choices people make, to one about access to due process and equal protection. In his recent book “Evicted” Matthew Desmond said it best–Eviction is a cause and not a condition of poverty.

Finally, when talking today about access to justice, also think about its potential to change the way systems function around individuals. Will these systems function more fairly if the rules of the game are changed? Will bad actors be outnumbered by good actors and raise the bar for everyone whose job it is to make that system work—litigants, court personnel, judges?

Access to justice means more than increasing representation on a case by case basis. There must be a radical shift in expectation about what our justice system can deliver for our communities and for all New Yorkers.