An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That adage has never been truer then when addressing the growing homelessness population in Dutchess County. Mass evictions from rental housing are at the root of Dutchess County’s housing and homelessness crisis. In 2018 alone, there were 1,919 eviction petitions filed in Dutchess County’s two City Courts (Poughkeepsie and Beacon). These numbers do not include the eviction petitions filed in the County’s 27 town and village courts.
As the only provider of comprehensive civil legal services in all seven counties of the Hudson Valley, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) handled 2,172 cases, which benefited 4,849 people in Dutchess County in 2019. The need for representation in housing matters far outweighs any other requested services. Fully 40% of all cases handled for Dutchess County residents involve preserving a tenancy or home. Last year, with only two housing attorneys, LSHV prevented 207 evictions.
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 also provide preventive and early intervention services that help keep these cases out of the courts by educating tenants and homeowners about their legal rights.
Our clients included a breast-cancer survivor who fell behind on rent during her medical treatments. Another was a single mom who was being evicted by a landlord who was unwilling to make the necessary repairs on a rental unit. Also, a group of residents of a mobile home park where the owner refused to provide potable water and other basic services. Statistics show that tenants are twice as likely to win their cases when they have an attorney because most have legitimate legal defenses that could keep them in their homes if raised in court. Had our clients not had access to our services, they may have lost their cases and ended up in the County’s homeless shelters.
Protecting tenant rights also saves taxpayers money. 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 shelter is $24,000 per year. When shelters are at capacity, which is happening with increased frequency, the cost to Dutchess County of housing families in motels is even greater.
Currently, LSHV’s staffing and resources cannot meet the demand it is facing in Dutchess County City and Justice Courts. Funding for two additional housing attorneys would cost the County $220,000 but conservatively save Dutchess County $960,000 in taxpayer dollars – quite a sound return on its investment! Let’s keep Dutchess healthy by preventing homelessness and keeping its residents in safe housing by investing in civil legal services for low-income Dutchess residents.
The writer is the CEO of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, a nonprofit organization that is the only provider of the civil legal services in the seven counties of the Hudson Valley.