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Community group trying to help Brooklynites facing eviction get free lawyers

April 19, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Natasha Worthen was inspired by her own parents’ activism to create the 115 Ocean Avenue Tenant Association, which has helped residents facing eviction to hire attorneys and stay in their homes. Today, she works with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition to help people get pro bono attorneys. Eagle photos by Edward King
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Natasha Worthen has been in and out of Brooklyn’s Housing Court at least once a year for the past six years and has seen firsthand the difference that having an attorney can make.

Her landlord has taken her to court for non-payment at least once a year for the past year, and has tried to jack up her rent by claiming the need for major capital improvement to the building. Only after she and other tenants joined together to create the 115 Ocean Avenue Tenant Association did some of the harassment stop.

“It has been going on for six years — whenever I mail my rent check they claim that they didn’t get it,” said Worthen, who lives in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. “It’s overwhelming. You are in a constant state of fear and it takes a physical toll on you.

“Only when we [tenants] come together does it make you feel empowered,” she continued. “We can’t take on landlords individually, but when our neighbors come together, we start to see that we have similar issues and when the landlords start to see us getting organized they make nice.”

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Worthen was one of the speakers at a town hall meeting held at St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf in Crown Heights on Wednesday. The meeting was hosted by the Right to Counsel Coalition, Flatbush Tenant Coalition and other community groups where tenant leaders explained to people about the Right to Counsel Law that was passed in 2017 that provides income-eligible people faced with eviction with a pro bono attorney.

“It doesn’t matter the reason for the eviction or the type of tenant you are, you have the right to an attorney,” Manfred Cadet said. “Since it was just passed it applies to only three zip codes in Brooklyn — 11225, 11221 and 11216. By 2022, it will apply to all zip codes in the borough.”

To be income eligible tenants must be at or below 200 percent of the poverty line — that’s approximately $24,280 annually for a single person to $50,200 annually for a family of four.

The event was attended by dozens of local community members and a few local elected officials. Among the crowd were many members from outside of the three zip codes served by the new law who were desperate for help.

“I live in Crown Heights in the 11213 zip code. I understand that you guys aren’t helping it yet, but it’s been a year since my landlord stopped accepting my payment,” said a 54-year-old woman, who wanted her name withheld for fear of retaliation from her landlord. “I don’t know what to do. I’m saving the money, but at the same time, I need to draw this to a close. We’ve been in that apartment for over 30 years. They don’t want the money they want the apartment.”

Pavita Krishnaswamy, an attorney from Brooklyn Legal Defenders, explained that when the housing court was initially set up it was primarily for tenants to sue their landlord for repairs and that the civil court handled evictions. However, by the time she started practicing law it was dominated by landlords, who were represented by a lawyer in 97 percent of cases.

Susanna Blankley, a coalition coordinator from the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, added that the reason the group advocated for the change in the law was to reclaim the Housing Court.

“Right to counsel is a message to landlords to change their behavior because they use Housing Court as a tool for displacement because they’ve been winning for so long even when they shouldn’t win,” Blankley said. “It’s about saying, you don’t’ get to run this court. We’re claiming it, we’re occupying it.”


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