New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency, a term defined by the Humanitarian Coalition of large international aid organizations as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people.” New York’s is what aid groups would characterize as a “complex emergency”: man-made and shaped by a combination of forces that have led to a large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes. What makes the crisis especially startling is that New York has the most progressive housing laws in the country and a mayor who has made tenants’ rights and affordable housing a central focus of his administration.
Last Monday, at the crack of dawn, the New York Police Department and other local law enforcement stormed into a Washington Heights homeless shelter for people with mental health issues on a warrant raid.
The officers waved tasers and shouted threats, scaring residents before eventually arresting an individual who was barely dressed, frightened by the chaos.
Every elected official knows constituents whose stories they will never forget. One of the most lasting for me is of a woman – I’ll call her Maria – who came to my office in tears after receiving an eviction order. She had been injured stepping on a broken stair in her apartment building, lost her job as a result, and was ultimately taken to court by a notoriously aggressive landlord for being unable to pay her rent. Without the money to afford a lawyer, she was forced to represent herself. Predictably, she ended up like thousands of other New Yorkers, forced from her home.
There’s hardly a member of the New York City Council who couldn’t share a similar story. That’s why today we will vote to make New York the first city in the nation to guarantee free legal representation for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction in housing court. The bill we are voting on today – Intro 214b – is expected to pass by a wide margin, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has already signaled his support. That means that beginning today, no low-income city resident will lose a home because he or she can’t afford a lawyer.