April 5, 2021
Re: 2019 Action Plan Substantial Amendment CV3
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Justin Haines and I am the Attorney-in-Charge of the Poughkeepsie office of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) serving all of Dutchess County. Legal Services of the Hudson Valley is a nonprofit law firm that provides critical civil legal services to people who are unable to afford an attorney when their basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, safety, and income, are at stake. This work includes landlord/tenant, family law/domestic violence, public benefits, disability, elder law and consumer matters. As such, our offices serve as an advocate and defender of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of Dutchess County. More importantly, we are the only source of free lawyers to defend evictions and maintain affordable housing in Poughkeepsie.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, LSHV has been a lifeline to those who have been affected by the crisis and have nowhere else to turn. This pandemic has been a devastating catastrophe for the many Americans who were already living on the edge of poverty and instability. Families who were just getting by are now facing unemployment, potential loss of housing, food insecurity, increased risk of domestic violence, and – for some – the urgent need for a will or healthcare proxy to make medical decisions. Free civil legal services are essential to these people.
Since the start of the pandemic, LSHV has focused our services on the most pressing needs brought on by COVID-19, including unemployment, domestic violence and housing. Since March of 2020, in Dutchess County alone, LSHV has had almost 1900 inquiries for civil legal assistance. Approximately two-thirds of those have been for housing, government benefits or income maintenance issues, a large number of which are COVID-19-related due to loss of household income.
LSHV’s housing attorneys have been staying up to date on the ever-changing landscape of state and federal moratoria, court openings and the temporary pauses in eviction proceedings. We have been assisting tenants in asserting their rights to these protections by completing hardship declarations and defending their rights when frustrated landlords challenge the tenant’s claims of being financially injured by the pandemic. We have also been educating service providers such as the
Dutchess County Housing Consortium, the Dutchess Bar Association and the Dutchess County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) on the current state of eviction moratoria and laws. We are a critical resource to this community in staying abreast of eviction developments. We also have been in court (virtual and in-person) restoring tenants to possession of their apartment and their belongings when a frustrated landlord illegally locks the tenant out of their home.
Tenants in Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County do not have protection from large rent increases or a right to a lease renewal as they would under the rent stabilization law called the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) which was extended beyond New York City and Westchester to the rest of the State in 2019. Localities have to opt into ETPA for it to apply. We saw even before the pandemic, an ever-increasing lack of affordable housing but that loss has now been fueled by New York City residents fleeing the City to the Hudson Valley, driving up rents and bring vacancy rates to record low. We are now in a situation where long-time residents of Poughkeepsie cannot afford to stay and there is no where for them to go as they cannot afford the increasing supply of luxury housing. Too often their choice is to move into poorly-maintained, substandard housing owned by notorious slumlords, if even that is still available.
Even when a low-income tenant has a Section 8 voucher to live out in the larger community, they are facing rents that have been increased beyond the maximum allowable rents under that program. Local Section 8 administrators have shared with me their frustrations that they are seeing the same problems, high rents for existing tenants and low vacancies for tenants wanting to relocate.
It is currently estimated that 30-40% of families are behind on their rent nationally. A recent rental arrears survey conducted by Dutchess County Department of Planning of area landlords found that of the 5,640 units surveyed outside of the City of Poughkeepsie, 893 units (16%) were in arrears. However, for the 492 units specifically surveyed in Poughkeepsie, 116 units (24%) were in arrears. The study was by no means comprehensive but it shows that an onslaught of evictions are surely coming.
In 2018, during pre-pandemic times, there were still 1,919 eviction petitions filed in the two City Courts (Poughkeepsie and Beacon) in Dutchess County. LSHV anticipates that eviction filings will increase exponentially once eviction moratoria lift, and some evictions are proceeding now, a fact that is unknown to many.
Because of a lack of sufficient funding for free civil legal services such as those provided by LSHV, historically the vast majority of litigants in eviction matters are forced to appear pro se. Many are unable to navigate the legal process without counsel, resulting in evictions and homelessness that could have been avoided. Studies unequivocally show that having legal representation in eviction proceedings dramatically decreases the risk of eviction and homelessness exponentially.
Unfortunately at the time when we are in the greatest need for eviction defense, LSHV which relies heavily on New York State funding for our work has seen across the board cuts of 20% in most State contracts as the result of pandemic-impacted revenue shortfalls. We are now seeking funding from federal CARES Act-funding streams to support our work.
Current New York law requires every tenant facing eviction in Dutchess County to receive a notice with LSHV’s contact information on it before an eviction can be filed. Yet, LSHV has only two dedicated housing attorneys to cover all of Dutchess County and only one to assist with public benefits matters. One of the two housing attorneys is now funded by CDBG-CV funds from Dutchess County and cannot handle any City of Poughkeepsie evictions due to the anti-duplication requirements of the CDBG-CV funding. Since we do not have local funding for Poughkeepsie eviction defense, our Poughkeepsie housing attorney is now handling foreclosure-prevention funded work taking time away from Poughkeepsie eviction work. This is woefully insufficient to address the need for legal representation for evictions in Poughkeepsie.
Homelessness imposes enormous financial costs at the county level in the form of shelter and increased demand on social services. The New York State average to house a family in the shelter system is $24,000 per year.1 When shelters are at capacity, which is happening with increased frequency, the cost to Dutchess County of housing families in motels is even greater. This high financial toll does not include the devastating traumatic emotional toll parents and children experience when they are displaced from their homes, forced to change schools, and be torn from their friends and support networks.
When an eviction occurs in Dutchess County by the Sheriff and his team, it is not simply that the home or apartment gets locked up. Instead, the Sheriff and his team will remove every belonging and place it on the street corner leaving everything a tenant owns out and vulnerable to passersby. Many times valuables are broken, destroyed, or lost, exacerbating the harm to the family.
LSHV prevents evictions and consequently saves Dutchess County valuable taxpayer dollars. When LSHV represents tenants and homeowners, our goal is to preserve safe and affordable housing for vulnerable residents, prevent homelessness, ensure economic security and promote stability in our communities. In addition to preventing evictions, foreclosures and homelessness, we assist clients in maintaining their housing or relocating safely.
We urge the City of Poughkeepsie to continue to invest in eviction prevention to provide access to legal representation to residents facing eviction. These cases are about much more than simply paying rental arrears. The City of Poughkeepsie should consider further amending its 2019 Action Plan to use significant CDBG-CV funds to increase access to legal representation for Poughkeepsie residents. This situation is dire, and without substantial and quick change to increase access to free civil legal services, many families in the coming year will face eviction, go to court unrepresented and face homelessness as a result.
Keep Poughkeepsie thriving by keeping its residents in their homes and out of homeless shelters. If we can provide any additional data or information on these issues, please do not hesitate to contact us, and thank you for your time.
Justin L. Haines
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley
1 See 2015 Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in NY, Report to the Chief Judge, p. 26.