Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) is the sole provider in the Hudson Valley of free, comprehensive, legal services in civil matters for individuals and families who cannot afford an attorney when their basic human needs are at stake. This includes urgent legal needs such as: housing emergencies (eviction and foreclosure prevention); domestic violence (orders of protection, child custody, etc.), healthcare, children’s advocacy, disability and benefits, elder law, consumer fraud and more.
Evictions from rental housing in Westchester County are a county-wide epidemic, now fueled and exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Historically, Mt. Vernon has been disproportionately impacted by this epidemic. In 2019, there were 9,344 eviction petitions filed in the County’s City Courts. Yonkers and Mt. Vernon accounted for over 7,000 of these petitions. Despite court closures, numerous moratoria and legislation directed at curtailing evictions and filings throughout New York State in 2020 and 2021, filings persisted. In 2020, there were 3866 eviction petitions filed in the County’s City Courts. Of those 3866 filings 1022 were in the City of Mt. Vernon. Through May of 2021, there were 982 new eviction petitions filed in the County’s City Courts. Of those 982 filings 200 were in the City of Mt. Vernon.
Despite the staggering number of eviction filings in Mt. Vernon since 2019, the City has not funded eviction prevention in recent years. This lack of funding has impacted LHSV’s ability to represent as many families as require assistance. It has limited LSHV’s capacity to prevent evictions and hindered our ability to ensure Mt. Vernon tenants are residing in habitable and safe housing consistently. At times, LSHV was forced to turn away families or provide advice in lieu of court representation, due to lack of resources. When the moratoria expire, the flood gates of eviction proceedings will open and without legal representation, the tenants will be defenseless.
Eviction is not solely an issue of rental arrears; it is about a gross inequity in power between landlords and tenants, which can have catastrophic results for low income families. Unrepresented tenants unknowingly sign agreements that result in their families becoming homeless. This sometimes can happen in less than two minutes in court. Additionally, in the majority of the non-payment proceedings, there is almost always a defense including, the imposition of improper rent amounts and fees; warranty of habitability; improper recertifications, improper rent registrations in rent regulated properties and violation of federal housing laws. Without representation, payment of rental arrears occurs with no oversight and verification.
LSHV attorneys can negotiate fair settlements with landlord attorneys and steer clients to financial resources to prevent eviction and homelessness while advocating for safe and habitable housing. We can assist the Department of Social Services by determining the correct amount of rent arrears a tenant might owe, thus ensuring a good use of both City and County resources. Also, it is important to note that many evictions do not involve rental arrears at all. They are holdover proceedings that involve allegations of lease violations or expiration of leases. These cases involve complex and complicated legal issues that can only be handled with the assistance of an attorney. LSHV specializes in this type of litigation.
When envisioning the post COVID-19 landscape, we will undoubtedly have an influx of families that are facing eviction for the first time who will be unable to navigate the court system or access eviction prevention services. We should be prepared to assist as many of these families as possible. Therefore, part of the Plan should include funding for legal assistance to ensure that these families are represented and guided through the process and resources of eviction prevention. This assistance will go beyond landlord/tenant representation and extend to providing representation in the areas of unemployment insurance, public benefits including cash assistance and SNAP benefits, and disability benefits. We are the only agency in the County that provides these additional services in conjunction with landlord/tenant legal assistance.
Studies show that families who are evicted suffer permanent trauma, losing their independence and dignity. Children lag far behind their peers in educational outcomes and suffer serious health consequences. These effects are often irreversible. Therefore, the Plan should be expanded to include services for those who are not yet homeless but are facing imminent and certain homelessness without legal representation. With the economic effects of COVID-19, the City of Mt. Vernon should be braced and prepared for the increased eviction filings and the impact they will have on the well-being of the unrepresented households. The City will need to address the needs of individuals and families who are for the first time in jeopardy of becoming homeless.
Let Mt. Vernon thrive by keeping Mt. Vernon residents in their homes and out of homeless shelters. Ensure that low income residents at risk of homelessness are given access to justice. Let LSHV help the City achieve its vision of neighborhood revitalization by ridding the City of poorly maintained, substandard housing through advocacy and litigation in partnership with the City’s Building Department. The City’s partnership with LSHV will prevent homelessness and promote family and neighborhood stability and revitalization. This common goal and vision can be the beginning a partnership that will benefit the City and its residents for years to come.
Respectfully Submitted By,
George Asante, Esq.
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley
AIC, Mt. Vernon Office