The Legal Aid Society Adds New Homicide Unit, Appoints Jamal Johnson Director

 Jamal Johnson, Director of the Homicide Defense Task Force

Jamal Johnson, Director of the Homicide Defense Task Force

***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE***

(New York, NY) – The Legal Aid Society announced the creation of a specialized Homicide Defense Task Force today and the hiring of public defender veteran, Jamal Johnson, as the Task Force’s director. Jamal will manage the citywide unit and work to create a best practices model to serve New Yorkers in all five boroughs.

“The Legal Aid Society has served as New York's primary public defender for decades, and we are proud to have Jamal Johnson – an exceptional litigator, leader and advocate – supervise this unit. While we have always represented clients in homicide matters, and have incredibly experienced litigators and professionals already working at our organization, the Homicide Defense Task Force centralizes all these resources for the betterment of our clients,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “I am extremely thrilled and honored to be selected Director of the Homicide Defense Task Force. Throughout my years at Legal Aid, I have been privileged to work with some of the best and brightest minds in criminal defense. I now look forward to utilizing many of the superb resources we have, including our in-house mitigation specialists and our DNA and Forensic Units, to make our citywide homicide practice the best in the country," said Jamal Johnson, Director of The Legal Aid Society’s Homicide Defense Task Force.

Previously, homicide representation for low-income New Yorkers was divided between defender organizations and 18B attorneys. However, the City is taking a best practices approach and recognizing that defender organizations are better positioned to fully counsel individuals accused of these serious crimes.

The Task Force will officially start representing New Yorkers on January 1, 2019.

Jamal Johnson Biography:

Mr. Johnson first joined The Legal Aid Society 17 years ago as a staff attorney in the Bronx Criminal Defense Practice. He quickly obtained senior status while establishing himself as a highly successful trial attorney.

He then went into private practice, opening the Law Office of Jamal Johnson. His primary focus was criminal defense and civil rights law. During this time, he represented clients facing a multitude of different charges, from low-level misdemeanors to crimes as serious as homicide, as well as submitting civil claims for false arrest and sexual harassment.”

In 2013, Mr. Johnson returned to Legal Aid as a Supervising Attorney where he assembled, mentored and supervised various trial teams resulting in numerous acquittals. Additionally, he has kept his superb trial skills sharp by leading or otherwise playing an active part in many trials ending very successfully for the clients.

Mr. Johnson has tried cases in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. He has also practiced in the federal district courts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Mr. Johnson earned his Bachelor's Degree at Howard University and his law degree at the Syracuse University College of Law where he was named best advocate “among 22 teams from NY, NJ, and Connecticut” in NYSBA’s National Trial Competition.

He is a recipient of the American College of Trial Lawyers “Medal for Excellence in Advocacy”.

Mr. Johnson has lectured in trial advocacy issues at CUNY Law School and in other forums on the topics of the science of cross examination and opening statements.

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The Legal Aid Society exists for one simple yet powerful reason: to ensure that New Yorkers are not denied their right to equal justice because of poverty. For over 140 years, we have protected, defended, and advocated for those who have struggled in silence for far too long. Every day, in every borough, The Legal Aid Society changes the lives of our clients and helps improve our communities. https://www.legalaidnyc.org

CURBED NY: Can NYC Phase Out Cluster Site Program Without ‘Perpetuating Homelessness’?

Photo: Shutterstock

CURBED NY: Can NYC Phase Out Cluster Site Program Without ‘Perpetuating Homelessness’?

December 13th, 2018

By Emma Whitford

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that his administration will purchase 17 apartment buildings in a controversial, Giuliani-era program that pays private landlords to house homeless families. Details are thin, but at minimum, the city says, more than 460 apartments that for years have been part of the shelter system will revert to their rent-stabilized status. Hundreds of families will get leases for the first time.

The deal is one step toward the mayor’s commitment to phase out the notoriously mismanaged cluster site program, which has about 1,400 units (down from its 2016 peak of 3,650 units), preserving affordable housing while he’s at it.

But not all cluster site residents have been so lucky. In Central Brooklyn, nearly 80 families are currently fighting eviction from their former cluster site apartments, arguing that they, too, deserve to be recognized as rent-stabilized tenants. Unless their lawyers can set a precedent—and without substantial reforms to the rent laws, which incentivize landlords to empty and renovate apartments—Legal Aid Society attorney Sunny Noh warns that “we find ourselves perpetuating homelessness.”

The families in question live across seven apartment buildings owned by Barry Hers, including three pre-war buildings on Clarkson Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. Under the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, buildings built before 1974 with more than six units are rent-stabilized, meaning tenants have the right to a lease renewal below market rate. The cluster site program proved attractive to landlords like Hers, whose rent-stabilized units reportedly brought in less than $1,000 per month. For comparison, cluster site contracts have stipulated the city pay an average of $2,700 per month, per apartment (homeless families in the program do not pay rent).

The Human Resources Administration announced plans to terminate its contract with Hers at 60 Clarkson in June 2015 as evidence of mismanagement and dangerous living conditions—collapsing ceilings, broken locks—piled up. HRA backed out of the other six Hers buildings in 2016, according to court papers. The city then offered to relocate the impacted families to other shelters, but dozens opted to stay on as paying tenants with full or partial rental vouchers. Those tenants joined the lawsuit with the Legal Aid Society and the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which argues they are stabilized tenants and are entitled to leases at the rents that were in place before Hers entered the cluster site program.

The lawsuit claims that Hers carried out an illegal illusory tenancy scheme, creating “multiple layers of superfluous business entities” to avoid rent stabilization. An illusory tenancy exists when a landlord registers a primary tenant (either an individual person or an entity), who’s then directed to sublease at an inflated, illegal rent. Court papers claim Hers rented apartments to two companies, We All Care Inc. and We Care Inc., at “inexplicably” nearly-identical rents (his lawyer, Nativ Winiarsky, says the rents are accurate). Per the lawsuit, those companies in turn sublet to a nonprofit called We Always Care Inc., which then contracted with the city to house homeless families.

Hers reportedly financed the nonprofit, though Winiarsky denies this. Winiarsky also told Curbed that Hers has “no affiliation” with the for-profit companies, though the Legal Aid Society has submitted, as evidence, emails they say suggest otherwise. Regardless, he says, his client did not evade rent stabilization laws because apartments rented for “charitable or educational purposes on a nonprofit basis” qualify for a special exemption in the rent stabilization code.

On October 10, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Peter Sweeney issued a ruling favorable to Hers, echoing another argument Winiarsky has made in court: that the former cluster site families cannot have the rights of tenants because they never signed leases or rental agreements. Sweeney, who also signed eviction orders for all of the families in November, did not explicitly address Legal Aid’s illusory tenancy argument.

Bert Knaus, a retired attorney who volunteers at the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project, told Curbed that he’s not surprised by the ruling. “There’s been this regressive trend in the last few years to cut back on any sense that these program participants have any sort of tenancy rights,” he explained. A more well-rounded decision from Sweeney, he added, would have included analysis of the legitimacy of the various companies, and the nonprofit, affiliated with Hers properties.

For Tashawn Sutherland, a 46-year-old mother of two and former cluster site resident living at 250 Clarkson Avenue, the prospect of losing her home is overwhelming. She says that her younger daughter, who is eight, has ADHD and autism. Sutherland walks with a cane. “I know it would be difficult for me to find an apartment for myself,” she said. “I would probably have to go back to the [shelter] system and they would have to place me.”

On December 17, Noh will argue for an extended stay pending appeal, so that Sutherland and her neighbors can remain in their apartments while her team works on next steps. “Our mayor will not leave these families stranded and we will pay for lawyers to represent these families in housing court,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a City Hall spokeswoman, told Curbed.

Meanwhile, it’s up to the state to enforce rent stabilization in apartments phasing out of the cluster site program. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal “has reached out to building owners identified by New York City as having units that have exited the cluster site program to inform them of their obligations,” said spokesman Freeman Klopott.

If the former cluster site families are ultimately evicted, “these units will still be rent-stabilized,” Winiarsky assured Curbed. But Prospect Lefferts Gardens continues to gentrify, drawing a new class of renters. Hers reportedly renovated multiple apartments in 2016, and listed them at near-market rents. It will be up to future Hers tenants to challenge rents they suspect to be illegally inflated. Once a rent-stabilized apartment is vacant, Knaus of the Community Development Project said, “it’s tough to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

AMNY: Curbing Tenant Harassment at the Heart of 18 Bills Before City Council

City lawmakers are weighing a package of bills aimed at preventing landlords from harassing tenants. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Drew Angerer

AMNY: Curbing Tenant Harassment at the Heart of 18 Bills Before City Council

December 13th, 2018

By Frank G. Runyeon

In an effort to protect tenants from landlord harassment, the City Council is considering 18 bills that would expand the city's oversight of building owners and increase penalties levied against bad actors, particularly those aiming to replace renters with higher-paying ones.

Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr., who chairs the body's housing committee, gave a grim evaluation of current tenant protection protocols at a Thursday hearing.

Predatory landlords have the “advantage of working within a city that often, sadly, provides inadequate oversight,” Cornegy said. The package of bills, he said, was “aimed at preventing displacement by predatory landlords, addressing the housing court eviction machine and ensuring that the administration does its part to prevent harassment and mistreatment that causes tenants to move out of their homes.”

The suite of legislation focuses on several aspects of rent regulation the city can control, although the bulk of the rules are set by the state. The measures would require that owners submit copies of lease buyout agreements with the city within 45 days, that the city deny building permits to some residences with housing code violations and that it start penalizing firms employing anyone who breaches building plan protocols, rather than punishing the offenders alone.

The proposals come after affordable housing advocates have highlighted how some landlords have managed to effectively push out low-income tenants with endless construction. They contend the goal is often to deregulate a rent regulated unit, so it can be renovated and leased at market rate.

One prominent example of this practice involved President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kusher, who was CEO of Kushner Companies when the real estate company falsified documents for more than 80 work permits at 34 properties between 2013 and 2016, according to an Associated Press report citing work by the Housing Rights Initiative. That tenants rights group is now teaming up with lawyers to sue on behalf of Kushner’s tenants.

“This legislative package is CPR for an affordable housing system in cardiac arrest,” said Aaron Carr, founder of Housing Rights Initiative. “Until Albany musters the political will to operate on the rent stabilization program, the city must employ every tool at its disposal to keep it alive.”

The Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords of rent regulated housing, issued a memorandum in opposition to seven of the bills, stating that, “The solution is enforcement, not more laws.”

Leaders from the city Department of Buildings and Department of Housing Preservation and Development largely supported the measures, but pushed back on some provisions, saying they had recently enacted changes that would curb concerning behavior.

“The use of construction to harass tenants is an absolutely dreadful practice,” said Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler, before noting that, as part of a larger task force on tenant harassment, his agency conducted 2,300 inspections and issued 1,600 summonses last year.

He added that the department has prioritized inspections, sped up complaint response times, audited work more often and will soon begin revoking permits for building owners who have over $25,000 in unpaid fines.

Chandler said his team was “busy enforcing a dozen laws enacted in 2017, which are intended to combat this very issue.”

But Kat Meyers, a lawyer at Legal Aid Society, said tenant harassment is “still rampant.” She said her organization, which provides counsel to low-income New Yorkers, is seeing the problems worsen, particularly for rent regulated tenants in recently rezoned areas, where there is a market incentive for landlords to raise rents.

Lawmakers were largely hopeful about the next round of legislation before them.

“It seems to me the city is moving in the right direction, a more proactive direction,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres. “More efforts have to be undertaken to crack down on systemic abuse and fraud.”

SILIVE.COM: Lawyers want 2 cops prosecuted, cases reviewed after controversial drug arrest

Body camera footage allegedly shows the discovery of marijuana in the defendant's car.

SILIVE.COM: Lawyers Want 2 Cops Prosecuted, Cases Reviewed After Controversial Drug Arrest

December 14th, 2018

By Mira Wassef

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – The Legal Aid Society is imploring the district attorney’s office to prosecute two Staten Island cops for allegedly “planting false evidence” following a car stop involving four young black men earlier this year, as well as to review all prior convictions stemming from the officers' arrests.

In a letter to District Attorney Michael E. McMahon, the lawyers claim Police Officer Kyle Erickson of the 120th Precinct planted marijuana in the back seat of Lasou Kuyateh’s vehicle after he and his partner, Officer Elmer Pastran, searched the same area and already declared it clean.

NYPD body camera footage, the letter alleges, “revealed criminal acts and misconduct by NYPD officers planting false evidence, arresting an innocent person, making false sworn allegations and assisting in the prosecution of manufactured charges."

The video footage, obtained by the New York Times, shows Pastran say “back seat looks pretty clear.”

While rifling through the BMW, Erickson’s body camera was shut off for more than four minutes after he is heard saying in the video, “We have to find something, you know what I mean?” Erickson’s camera came back on just in time to capture him finding the joint, which he claims was burning in the back seat.

However, Pastran’s camera recorded Erickson “place a small object into an area in the back of the car,” which the footage previously shows was all clear, Legal Aid alleges in its letter. This is indiscernible in the Times video.

The Times footage shows the officer searching the car place what appears to be a small, green plastic bag in the console. It was not clear from the video where it came from or what was in it.

"He’s putting something in my car,” Kuyateh is heard repeatedly screaming in the video.

Kuyateh was arrested and charged with criminal possession of marijuana after the Feb. 28 incident. The charges were dismissed in October during pre-trial hearings after the body-camera videos were played in court.

Both officers testified about the stop and search. Erickson told the court he had found a lit joint in the back of the vehicle, but the video refuted his statements, said the Legal Aid letter.

“I expect officers be held responsible for this criminal action. I think Staten Island is entitled to that," said Chris Pisciotta, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society on Staten Island.

"We cannot condone illegal acts by police to bring false charges against members of our community,” he said in the letter.

The NYPD and McMahon’s office told the Advance they had already cleared the officers after separate probes.

“There was no evidence that the officers conducted anything but a lawful stop, performed a consensual search, and had probable cause to arrest the defendant,” said Det. Sophia Mason of the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information office.

“Allegations against responding officers were determined to be unfounded,” said a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.

But Pisciotta wants McMahon and the NYPD to reassess the case.

“I am disheartened by the initial action by the NYPD,” he told the Advance. “These are their videos. I don’t understand how they can’t go forward with an investigation.”

THE INCIDENT

The officers claim they smelled marijuana after pulling over the vehicle for tinted windows and failing to signal before turning. Some of the young men in the car admitted they had just finished smoking, but that there was nothing in the car, according to the Times report.

“I don’t appreciate being lied to,” Pastran said in the video. “I know there is weed in the car. I smell it.”

The officers then search the car for nearly four minutes without finding anything.

“Nothing. Clean. F---." Pastran said.

Kuyateh used his cellphone to record the officers searching his car and filmed Erickson holding small, plastic bags before he begins screaming, said the Times’ story.

“Yo, you were just putting something in my car,” he yells.

Kuyateh is then handcuffed after his outburst.

At the same time, Erickson was still in the vehicle and his body camera had been off for about four minutes, according to the Times. He then discovers the joint.

“It’s a marijuana cigarette, it’s lit,” Erickson is heard saying in the video.

Later, the officers discuss who they should arrest before deciding to take Kuyateh into custody.

RACIAL PROFILING ACCUSATIONS

In the letter to McMahon, the Legal Aid Society argues Erickson and Pastran target minorities after analyzing their arrest histories.

They claim that about 80 percent of their car stops and arrests are of either black or Latino people, and 54 percent of their marijuana arrests involve black people, said the letter.

The note claims the cops arrested only four white people for drugs.

The alleged pattern of racial profiling raised doubt about the cops' previous cases, and those convictions should be reviewed, said the note.

“Staten Island requires accountability and justice now,” Pisciotta said in the letter.

Statement on NYS Court of Appeals 50-a Ruling

Photo: Paul Buckowski, Albany Times Union

The Legal Aid Society released the following statement below responding to a New York State Court of Appeals Ruling - New York Civil Liberties Union v. the New York City Police Department - concerning 50-a and the disclosure of redacted administrative decisions with regard to police discipline:

“The Court of Appeals decision cements a dangerous precedent in a democracy that relies on access of information in order to hold public officials accountable. This decision fails to follow the principles of open government and the deference courts have traditionally given to open records laws. By emphasizing 50-a’s privacy protections over open government principles, the court’s decision today will amplify harm to people abused by police, leave Black and Latinx communities vulnerable with even less recourse to hold police accountable, will support impunity by officers who will abuse the reliability of their anonymity, and will cause continued disruption in the justice system. We will push hard on Albany to repeal 50-a and to return New York to a system of open governance.”

Statement on Violent Arrest, Separation of Young Mother From One-year Old Child at Brooklyn HRA Center

The Legal Aid Society released the following statement responding to the violent arrest of 23-year-old Jazmine Headley, a mother of a one-year-old boy, who was forcibly separated from her son and was arrested after a verbal dispute with a security guard at the Fort Greene Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Brooklyn:

“The horrific treatment Ms. Headley and her one-year-old child suffered at the hands of the NYPD and others last week truly shocks the conscience. We hear horror stories from our clients on a regular basis about their negative experiences with these bureaucratic offices and staff – agencies and people who are ostensibly supposed to show compassion and help New Yorkers with their struggles.

While we are horrified that these officers acted so quickly, we are not surprised given the NYPD’s continued failure to engage with communities in any meaningful way. Ripping a one-year-old child from a mother’s arms is a heartless ICE tactic employed at the border that we all have denounced.

We call for:

  • an immediate investigation into the involved officers’ conduct;
  • an end to long delays in HRA offices where people seek relief;
  • the dismissal of all charges against Ms. Headley.

New York City must be better; and these immediate actions must be taken.”

Dozens of State Elected Officials Gather at City Hall and Pledge to Support Sweeping NYS Housing Reforms Next Legislative Session

housingcrisis.jpg

Dozens of elected officials gathered at City Hall today in support of passing various sweeping housing reforms when the Legislature convenes next year in Albany. Legislators were also flanked by advocates from the Housing Justice for All campaign, tenants, and other stakeholders in support of reform.

Key loopholes the State Legislators vowed to close include preferential rent and major capital improvements, which saddle tenants with sudden and permanent rent increases; individual apartment increases and the vacancy bonus, which encourage tenant harassment; and vacancy decontrol, which has led to the loss of over hundred thousand rent regulated apartments in the last 10 years.

This year, legislators are also working to pass good cause eviction, which would protect millions of tenants across the state who currently lack any basic tenant protections. Additionally, legislators have called for the expansion of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act to cover the entire state.

“For decades, landlords across New York State have seen their profits explode because of our broken rent laws that exploit poor tenants and deplete local affordable housing. This must end,” said Judith Goldiner, Attorney-In-Charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “These reforms have been passed over for decades and we’re looking forward to Albany finally advancing them next year when the Legislature convenes. Low-income tenants across the state cannot wait any longer.

“Strengthening tenant protections in 2019 is the single largest factor determining whether New York will continue to be affordable for low and moderate income New Yorkers, and seniors like me who are on fixed incomes but do not qualify for SCRIE,” said Veronica Glasgow, a tenant leader with Tenants & Neighbors and Harlem resident. “Most New Yorkers are a paycheck away from homelessness. As a retired social services director, I have seen firsthand what homelessness does to children and families. This year we must close the loopholes in the rent laws and extend Universal Rent Control to all. This campaign with tenants across the state, and our allies in the Assembly and the Senate begins now, and will have great implications for generations of New Yorkers.”

BACKGROUND: For many years, the real-estate industry has controlled politics in Albany, to the detriment of millions of tenants across the State. The results: 89,000 people are homeless, and New York has lost hundreds of thousands of affordable rental apartments. The rental housing crisis is spreading across the State. Just last month, tenants and allies of the statewide campaign marched in lower Manhattan demanding an end to landlord dominance in Albany - and to demand that Governor Cuomo and the state legislature pass a universal rent control package in the next legislative session that will protect all tenants across the state.

Housing advocates and tenants involved in the statewide Housing Justice for All campaign have released a comprehensive universal rent control legislative package that includes closing all loopholes in current rent regulations, and expanding protections against evictions across the entire state. They are pushing for passage of the universal rent control package before the rent laws expire in June 2019.

Those in attendance included Senators Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar, Zellnor Myrie, Brian Kavanagh, Brad Hoylman, Liz Krueger, Robert Jackson; Assemblymembers Diana Richardson, Rodnyse Bichotte, Carmen de la Rosa, Jo Anne Simon, Maritza Davila, Linda Rosenthal, Harvey Epstein, Victor Pichardo, and others; Affordable housing advocates, tenants, homeless New Yorkers, members and leaders of Housing Justice for All.

“Too many tenants are priced out of their homes because of laws that put a landlord's bottom line before the well-being of tenants,” said Senator Michael Gianaris. “All New Yorkers deserve high quality, affordable homes and I look forward to supporting an agenda that deals with the crisis affecting tenants."

“New York families have struggled for too long with the increasing lack of affordable in our city and our state. Loopholes in New York's rent regulation laws have made it all too easy for unscrupulous building owners to dramatically increase rents, harass tenants, illegally deregulate units, and exacerbate the affordable housing crisis. But this year, with Democrats finally in control of the State Senate, I am confident that we can begin to change that narrative. With the help of tireless advocates across the state, the time has come to strengthen the rights of rent regulated tenants and create new anti-eviction protections for tenants in market rate units as well,” said Senator Liz Krueger.

“For too long, the rent stabilization system has been rigged against tenants. I’m looking forward to being part of a new Senate Democratic majority that will fight to strengthen and reform the rent laws in Albany and finally provide security to over 1 million New Yorkers who rely on rent regulations to protect their affordable housing,” said Senator Brad Hoylman.

“We are made strong by our diversity. Preserving affordable housing, strengthening rent laws and protecting tenants from harassment and evictions are critical to promoting this diversity by ensuring seniors who built their neighborhoods can stay here, young people can start here and the middle class can prosper. We need to ban the ‘eviction bonus,’ repeal vacancy decontrol, end the preferential rent loophole and pass stronger and expanded tenant protections for millions of families across the state and that’s what I’ll work to do,” said Senator-Elect Robert Jackson.

“Make no mistake, the housing emergency in this state is the defining crisis of this generation. Every facet of an individual’s life is impacted by the status of their housing and in New York, tenants’ lives have come at the expense of unscrupulous and greedy landlords. In the next legislative session, tenants from all over the state will fight back,” said Senator-Elect Zellnor Myrie. “As a lifelong rent-stabilized tenant, I look forward to fighting alongside tenant leaders next year to close loopholes and reform laws that have systematically pushed tenants out of their homes all over the state. We will start this fight on Day 1 of the legislative session.”

“We need to finally repeal and replace the deregulatory rent laws that put tenants throughout New York state at the mercy of predatory developers and abusive landlords. We’ve long seen the harmful impact of the lack of rent regulation in our North Brooklyn neighborhoods, and now we are seeing the negative impact in communities across the state as well,” said Senator-Elect Julia Salazar. “It’s time to end vacancy decontrol and vacancy bonuses; to fight the MCI-induced rent increases that threaten to displace working families; and to close the preferential rent loophole that has allowed big real estate to exploit tenants. Every tenant in New York must be legally protected from the risk of displacement and homelessness. This is what it means to demand universal rent control. Housing is a human right, and we cannot accept anything less than rent laws that demonstrate that.”

“As the Assemblywoman for the 43rd District in Central Brooklyn, I represent one of the most rapidly gentrifying parts of New York City. I am witnessing firsthand how my constituents are being pushed out of their homes by wealthy real estate. I have never stood with the real estate industry, and I have always stood with tenants. I am thrilled to work with my colleagues in the Assembly and the new State Senate to finally pass stronger rent laws, expand them to tenants in small buildings and across New York State.” said Assembly Member Diana Richardson.

“In the 76th District- Upper East Side, Yorkville and Roosevelt Island, we have a displacement crisis which has reached its breaking point with 115 families being evicted by court marshals last year alone, and losing 30 percent of rent stabilized housing stock since 2007. Keeping tenants in their homes, and maintaining affordable units in our community is my top priority. We host a Tuesday Legal Housing Clinic serving hundreds of constituents who are fearful of being displaced. This session, I commit to renew an strengthen the rent laws, eliminate the practice of vacancy decontrol, preferential rents and Major Capital Improvement increases that can lead to displacement, broaden protections for all renters, and reconsider the calculation for rent controlled tenants,” said Assembly Member Rebecca A. Seawright.

"I have carried, along with the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of tenants, the legislation to repeal vacancy deregulation and preserve rent control for nearly a decade. The opportunity we have so long been waiting for, though, has finally arrived, and I could not be more optimistic,” said Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal. “The stranglehold that landlords and big real estate have had on Albany has loosened, and together we will ensure that our rallying cry becomes reality: 2019 Is the Year of the Tenant.” I

“Stronger rent laws and tenant protections are essential to our future. They are necessary to preserve affordable housing, help people remain in their homes, and promote stable, diverse communities. The law should be on the side of ordinary New Yorkers, not on the side of callous or greedy landlords. We should not simply extend the rent laws – we must strengthen them, and offer that protection to communities across the state,” said Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried.

“Housing is a human right, and we must tackle the economic inequality that prevents us from ensuring that every New Yorker has a home” said Assembly Member Harvey Epstein. “Nearly half of the state's population is considered rent burdened, with 30 percent or more of their income going towards rent. As we enter the new legislative session, it is imperative that we prioritize bills that will address housing insecurity. We need to close loopholes that drive up rents, pass just-cause eviction, and increase the penalties against predatory landlords. I am proud to stand with tenants and organizers, who understand the urgency of this better than anyone. I look forward to working with these movements to advance progressive housing legislation in the new year."

“We have a life threatening housing crisis in New York City, that is our moral duty to immediately solve. I stand with tenants, community leaders, and colleagues in government, in pledging to fight to close ALL rent loopholes that continue to push people out of their homes. We need to expand these protections throughout the state, especially just-cause evictions to make sure all tenants possess most basic tenant protections. The time for half measures are over,” said Assembly Member Brian Barnwell.

“We are in the midst of a housing crisis in New York, and thousands of hard-working people have been displaced from their homes. As the rental protections sunset this year, we must do everything we can to protect tenants and pass meaningful rent regulation reforms. I applaud the robust proposals set forth by the Housing Justice for All Campaign and housing advocates, and look forward to working with them on behalf of New York tenants this legislative session,” said Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon.

“I've lived in Crown Heights for 17 years and now my landlord -- Treetop Development -- is using MCIs to raise our rents more than we can afford,” said Vaughn Armor, member of new York Communities for Change. “I refuse to stand by and let these wicked landlords raise the rent on low-income seniors who have been here for 30 years; we need Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to eliminate MCIs and expand tenant protections statewide so we can afford to stay in our homes."

"The result of Governor Cuomo's marriage to real estate has led to weakened rent laws, a major homelessness crisis and a city and state that is becoming unrecognizable" says Leticia Pazmino, tenant leader of Make the Road New York. "In 2019 with a new Democratic Senate, we must fight like hell to ensure that every tenant, across every part of the state, has access to strong tenant protections so that our communities don't become playgrounds for the rich."

“New York State’s rent law loopholes are legalized fraud. An audit conducted by the New York State government of 1100 landlord found that over 40% of them were illegally overcharging tenants in rent. This should come as no surprise, as none of this is by accident and all of it is by design. Cheaters, however, should not be allowed to prosper in a moral and just society. And that is why it is imperative for Albany to act, and to act with great resolve and precision, to restore affordable housing and the public’s trust in government,” said Aaron Carr, Founder and Executive Director of Housing Rights Initiative.

“Zara Realty’s MCI rent increases of $350.00 to $600.00 a month are forcing us out of our homes and decimating the community of Jamaica Queens. Elected representatives— you can’t unhear this statement of fact. Don’t look away. Will you put a stop to it, or are you complicit?,” said Robin Budnetz, Zara Tenants Coalition.

“A preferential lease utilizes the "bait and switch" tactic, a seemingly affordable apartment becomes unaffordable, if a tenant commits or participates in any act of which the landlord does not approve I.e calling 3-1-1, hp action or decrease in services filing. This practice was not good for purchasing a car, it's even worse for selecting an apartment,” said Beverly Newsome, President, Ebbets Field Tenants Organization.

"Weakened rent laws allowed powerful landlords to kick my family out of Bushwick where I grew up. Now I commute over an hour each way to and from high school every day. Youth like me need universal rent control because housing is a human right — we all deserve to live with dignity and respect and to be able to stay in our neighborhoods, no matter what." said Samairy Piña, Churches United for Fair Housing Youth Leader.

“Los inquilinos estamos pasando por situaciones precarias ya que las leyes de vivienda favorecen a los caseros. Por lo tanto queremos que se pasen leyes que beneficien a las inquilinas y que estas sean aplicadas. ¡No queremos sólo promesas, queremos hechos!" said Teresita Aguilar, United Neighborhood Organization en Norte de Brooklyn.

NYT: For N.Y.’s Foster Children, Running Away Can Lead to Handcuffs

NYT: For N.Y.’s Foster Children, Running Away Can Lead to Handcuffs

Dec. 6, 2018

By Ali Watkins

Nevayah still remembers the feel of the handcuffs. They were foreign to her; she had never been in trouble.

A latecomer to New York City’s foster care system, Nevayah had been signed over to the Administration for Children’s Services when she was 16. Rather than enter a group home, she told her caseworker she would prefer to live with her mother in Ohio. Eager to start school, she bought a bus ticket, made it to Cleveland and phoned the agency to let them know that she was safe.

Per protocol, A.C.S. said, they would send the authorities to make sure the home was suitable.

But when the police arrived that night, they told Nevayah that New York Family Court had issued a warrant for her arrest. Graciously, she said, officers waited to handcuff her until she was in the back of their patrol car. By midnight, she was in a cell.

In Family Court hearings every month, the A.C.S. is quietly being granted arrest warrants to detain foster children like Nevayah, whose only transgression is leaving the agency’s care. The unusually draconian strategy has little precedent in any state’s foster care system, and it is unclear if the A.C.S. even has the authority to use such warrants under New York State law.

It is the A.C.S.’s controversial solution to a complicated problem: how to find and keep runaway minors in foster homes they do not want to stay in. To not search for runaways is a dereliction of the agency’s duty. But to use law enforcement over less adversarial approaches, like casework, puts some of the city’s most vulnerable wards into volatile situations.

The full names of foster children who spoke with The New York Times are being withheld at their request because they are both minors.

“Warrants can be helpful in locating children because they engage law enforcement resources,” said Chanel Caraway, a spokeswoman for A.C.S. “That said, we’ve taken a number of steps to ensure that we only seek warrants in cases where they’re necessary.”

The agency itself has acknowledged that the practice — sometimes resulting in the arrest of children as young as 14 — can be problematic. In an industry newsletter in 2015, it announced it intended to adopt more stringent guidelines to govern its use of warrants.

“In practice, the execution of a warrant can have unintended negative consequences to the child or youth that is absent from care,” the newsletter, which is still available online, stated.

In the months immediately following that announcement, the number of warrants issued to A.C.S. dropped steeply — to 81, down from 125 the year before. In 2016, the number of approved warrants dipped even further, to 48.

But last year, the numbers crept back up as A.C.S. was granted 69 arrest warrants for children, according to statistics provided by the agency.

Despite fluctuations in their frequency, the warrants create a tension that can undermine A.C.S.’s goals, straining an already fragile relationship between wary foster children and the agency they are supposed to trust.

“It’s disturbing that New York does this. These are kids that have committed no crime, and it’s particularly disturbing because they’re the most vulnerable kids,” said Betsy Kramer, director of special litigation at the Manhattan-based Lawyers for Children, which represents several foster children who have been the subject of arrest warrants.

The warrants are different from juvenile delinquency warrants, which are used to arrest minors who are wanted for breaking the law. Though runaway arrest warrants come by way of A.C.S., they are standard civil arrest warrants and are entered into the state’s warrant database.

The warrants for runaways are often executed like traditional arrest warrants, with handcuffs and lockups. While the fine print states that handcuffs should not be used — except in extreme circumstances — advocates and foster children have said almost every warrant case involves the use of handcuffs.

A.C.S. officials said the arrest warrants are handled through the Police Department’s warrant squad, but would not comment on the use of handcuffs.

A review of foster care policies across the country shows no other similar practice of using arrest warrants to detain runaways. Many other states use court orders or court-ordered requests to pick up a child, often deploying protective officers or caseworkers who are not in uniform, but are sometimes accompanied by law enforcement. Some states use “child protective warrants” that allow the agency to take the child into custody.

In 2017, New York City had 8,945 children in 24-hour foster care. Of those, 354 children were considered by A.C.S. to be Absent Without Leave, or A.W.O.L., for a week or more.

“In most cases, they are going home to their home communities to spend time with their families and friends,” Ms. Kramer said of missing youth. “To subject them to arrest for that is just really particularly egregious.”

Across the city, lawyers described a system in which the police are frequently directed by caseworkers to a child’s location in order to have them detained.

“Half the time, maybe even more, A.C.S. knows exactly where the child is when they ask for a warrant,” said Dodd Terry, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society.

Heaven, one of The Legal Aid Society’s clients, was 16 when the agency was granted a warrant for her arrest. She had left her foster home, but was still showing up daily to her internship — with A.C.S.

“It was kind of weird because A.C.S. called my phone and told me, ‘Oh, you have an arrest warrant,’” she said. “They see me every Monday through Thursday from 1 to 4.”

For Heaven, the warrant did the opposite of what the agency said it intends: It drove her farther away. At 16, she was caught in a prostitution ring and had left her foster home to live with her pimp. Though she was attending high school in the Bronx and continued to show up for her internship, she said she feared seeking help from her caseworker.

“I don’t get that. You don’t come to me like I’m an actual person. You come to me like I’m a criminal. I’m not a criminal,” said Heaven. “If they really talked to me how I actually needed to be talked to, listen, I would work with them. I really would’ve.”

The warrant was vacated by a Family Court judge after Heaven’s lawyers challenged its validity. She has since returned to her foster home and has stopped prostituting herself, she said; she is on track to graduate early from high school.

The agency said it adheres to a “limited use policy” that considers factors like age and special needs when it seeks warrants, but it would not provide the specific policy. It is unclear what differentiates situations when warrants are issued from scenarios when a softer outreach is employed — for example, when a caseworker or a child protective specialist is deployed to try to return the child to their placement.

“What is troubling about this is that for communities of color that are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, you have law enforcement getting involved in basic life situations that should be social services matter,” said Mr. Terry. “Do your casework before you seek law enforcement.”

In a system where the majority of children are black and Hispanic — including 89 percent of the foster children who were considered A.W.O.L. in 2017, according to agency statistics — the psychological impact of these police interactions can be devastating.

“I still have nightmares to this day,” said Nevayah, who is now 17.

She passed the time in her detention cell reading the Harry Potter series, and said she marked each day by scratching a mark on her wall. The A.C.S. had ordered her to come back to New York but Nevayah, who identifies as transgender and is currently transitioning, wanted to stay in Ohio. The A.C.S., she said, would not guarantee her L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly housing in New York.

After three weeks, when she finally agreed to fly back, the police walked her through the airport in handcuffs and leg irons. It was an experience that Nevayah described as humiliating.

“I felt stereotyped. I’m a minority. I’m Puerto Rican, Latino, and I’m being put through the justice system,” she said. “The statistics don’t care how I ended up in jail.”

Nevayah has since found an accepting group home in the city and attends an L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly high school in Manhattan. She plans to go to college, where she wants to study to become a software engineer.

The Legal Aid Society has filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court that challenges whether the court and the A.C.S. have the authority to even issue arrest warrants. That case is expected to be argued this month. In the meantime, Family Court judges have delayed decisions on two of the warrants for unnamed children involved in the case, bolstering advocates’ confidence that the agency is on dubious legal footing.

Even undecided, the appeal is having an impact in courtrooms, where judges have started voicing more skepticism over the use of warrants.

At Nevayah’s court hearing in October, Jessica Brenes, a Family Court referee, was distraught when she discovered that the A.C.S. had known Nevayah was with her mother in Ohio when the court granted the warrant for the teenager’s arrest.

The agency had not told Ms. Brenes it was aware of Nevayah’s whereabouts. Had she known, Ms. Brenes said, the warrant likely would not have been granted.

“It is not a mechanism to make it easier to retrieve the youth,” she said, frustrated. “I need to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

NYLJ: NY Deputy AG Sabel Set to Take Over Interim Leadership of Legal Aid Society in 2019

NYLJ: NY Deputy AG Sabel Set to Take Over Interim Leadership of Legal Aid Society in 2019

December 5th, 2018

By Colby Hamilton 

Janet Sabel, a chief deputy attorney general under New York AG Barbara Underwood, is set to return to the Legal Aid Society in early January to take over as interim attorney-in-chief and CEO of the nation’s largest public defender organization. LAS has sought new leadership since Seymour James stepped down earlier this year. According to the organization, Sabel’s return will help facilitate the search for a permanent person to take on the leadership roles. Richard Davis, the chair of LAS’s board of directors and now in private practice, said Sabel has made a career demonstrating “she is a fighter for justice.”

“Janet’s 25-year career at Legal Aid, followed by eight years at the New York State Attorney General’s Office in important leadership positions, make her the ideal person to guide the Legal Aid Society during this interim period,” Davis said in a statement. Sabel joined the state Attorney General’s Office in 2011, under then-AG Eric Schneiderman, as executive deputy AG for social justice. She was promoted to first deputy AG of affirmative litigation in 2013, before becoming one of two chief deputies in 2015.

During her tenure in the office, Sabel oversaw a number of high-profile actions, including a landmark antitrust case involving the sale of Alzheimer drugs, the state’s first enforcement of mental health parity laws, and a resolution of a redlining investigation of a Buffalo bank. She has also been a key part of the AG’s challenges to the Trump administration’s immigration, travel ban and sanctuary city policies. She oversaw successful litigation efforts to restore federal funding for tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers, as well fraud litigation against Trump University.

Prior to joining the AG’s Office, Sabel held a number of top positions at Legal Aid during her decades with the organization, including as attorney-in-chief of LAS’s citywide immigration law unit.

In a statement, Sabel said she was honored to be returning to Legal Aid.

“Having served in several different capacities ranging from staff attorney to general counsel and chief administrative officer, I look forward to continuing to build a supportive workplace for all of our employees and to ensuring that the Legal Aid Society has the funding it needs to fulfill its mandate and remain the premier legal services organization in the country fighting for justice for its clients,” she said.

In a statement, Underwood called Sabel an extraordinary public servant and a passionate advocate for the most vulnerable.

“For the past eight years, she has been the driving force behind so many of our office’s efforts, especially our work protecting New Yorkers from discrimination by for-profit companies and the federal government,” the attorney general said. “We will dearly miss Janet, and Legal Aid is lucky to have her back to lead the organization.”

Legal Aid Society Files Lawsuit Demanding Transparency From NYPD on Gang Policing Practices

 The Legal Aid Society and partner organizations rallying against the NYPD’s Gang Database | October 2018

The Legal Aid Society and partner organizations rallying against the NYPD’s Gang Database | October 2018

The Legal Aid Society recently filed an Article 78 lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the New York City Police Department (NYPD) demanding answers about the Department’s gang policing tactics that ensnare entire communities and operate largely unchecked.

The lawsuit was brought after the NYPD denied a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request seeking to obtain basic information for a LAS client and his inclusion in the database. This efforts stems from Legal Aid’s “FOIL Yourself” campaign, which was launched in February to help New Yorkers submit FOIL requests to determine if they have been labeled by the NYPD as a gang affiliate.

“The NYPD’s gang policing is the epitome of government secrecy,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “The public knows virtually nothing about the Department’s gang enforcement tactics, and its database that ensnares black and brown New Yorkers at record speed under this Administration. We hope this lawsuit finally brings some daylight to an issue that the City Hall has long tried to keep in the shadows.”

The suit was jointly filed by LAS and law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, a long-time pro bono partner of LAS in representing indigent clients in criminal defense cases.

Background on the NYPD’s Gang Database

For years, the NYPD has maintained a Criminal Group Database to track and surveil alleged members of local gangs or crews. Over the past decade, the number of individuals designated as gang or crew members in New York City has increased dramatically, with thousands of New Yorkers indiscriminately caught in the NYPD’s gang labeling dragnet.

The Department’s anti-gang tactics overwhelmingly target communities of color. According to recent reporting, nearly 66 percent of those added to the database between December 2013 and February 2018 were black, and 33 percent were Latinx. Blacks and Latinos respectively make up 25 percent and 27 percent of the city’s residents. Over the same four-year period, only 0.8 percent of the 17,452 people added to the list were white.

Background on Petitioner

Keith Shenery is a 21-year-old African-American resident of Harlem, who was arrested for possessing a small bag of marijuana and a folding knife that was later found in his pocket. Mr. Shenery was charged with possession of a “gravity knife,” a crime that the Manhattan District Attorney prosecutes more harshly than any other New York City DA.

In this case, the prosecution repeatedly asserted that Mr. Shenery was a “gang member” according to the NYPD. However, there was no evidence supporting these assertions nor any such allegations in the indictment.

The Legal Aid Society and Kramer Levin seek the police records underlying this so-called gang membership.