Housing Court Bar Association hosts tenants’ attorneys for Universal Access discussion
The Kings County Housing Court Bar Association hosted two attorneys from the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network for a discussion on Universal Access, a program designed to provide free lawyers for tenants who qualify, during its monthly meeting on March 7.
Universal Access resulted from the Right to Counsel Law that the City Council passed approximately a year and a half ago. It’s meant to help New Yorkers facing eviction who can’t afford an attorney. It’s being rolled out over a five-year period and is currently available in four zip codes in Brooklyn.
Attorneys Jean Stevens from Brooklyn Legal Services and Renee Murdock from CAMBA Legal Services are the co-chairs of the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network. They were invited in as part of KCHCBA’s push to involve more tenant attorneys in its organization.
“Universal Access has been thrown on them as much as it has been thrown on us,” Charles Wasserman, vice president of KCHCBA, said at the meeting at Rocco’s Tacos in Downtown Brooklyn. “If there is ever a time for the two bars to come together, which we’ve always wanted, now is the time. There are things that we may like, but they may not like it either, or we may like it and they may like it also.
“We may have our differences, but in reality when we come together and work together this works better for everyone involved,” he said.
KCHCBA President Michael Rosenthal said that he invited Murdock and Stevens to speak after a meeting with Housing Court Supervising Judge Cheryl Gonzales. Many things have changed over the year-and-a-half since the law was implemented, and Rosenthal thought that his members — even those who only represent landlords — would benefit from a more inclusive discussion.
“Up until a few years ago there were not very many tenants’ attorneys from Legal Services running around Housing Court,” Murdock said. “I’m sure you could point them all out. This passed about a year and a half ago now, and it’s been a huge shift in our practice in terms of many things.
“It’s been real exciting, we think, for there to be more tenants’ attorneys in court. I think it’s great for tenants. It can also be beneficial to landlord attorneys, as I’ve heard from many of you,” she said.
With such a drastic change to the way Housing Court is being conducted, there have been many growing pains for both landlords’ and tenants’ attorneys. Part of the change, some attorneys at the meeting observed, has to do with the fact that although the law was passed by New York City, it is the state that runs the court system.
“The judges are trying to figure out how to make it work,” Stevens said. “Now we have so many more attorneys on both sides, and there are a lot more requests to pull files.
“The court clerks are busy filing a lot more documents, and also there are more requests for rent histories,” she said. “There is so much going on, so many more pieces in addition to just our appearances in court.”
Topics discussed throughout the meeting ranged from issues such as when the tenants’ attorneys should be meeting with clients to minor hurdles such as making photocopies and when certain materials are being turned over.
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