VOLS Testifies at New York City Council Oversight Hearing Committee on Housing and Buildings- February 24, 2020

February 25, 2020

 

On Monday, February 24th, 2020, VOLS testified at a City Council Hearing in support of two pieces of legislation that will expand the right to counsel in NYC for low-income New Yorkers - Intro 1104 and Intro 1529. VOLS board member Alison King (Pro Bono Counsel at Arnold & Porter, Co-Chair of the Right to Counsel Committee at the New York CIty Bar) and VOLS ex officio board member Roger Juan Maldonado (President of the New York City Bar Association) appeared alongside Andrew Scherer, Co-Chair of the Right to Counsel Subcommittee at the New York City Bar, in support of both bills.

VOLS Veterans Initiative Staff Attorney Jess Penkoff also testified in support of these bills, explaining how expanding right to counsel would especially benefit veterans, most of whom are currently disqualified from the right to counsel. Her testimony is below:

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My name is Jess Penkoff I am the staff attorney for the Veterans Initiative at Volunteers of Legal Service, also known as VOLS. VOLS was established in 1984 by law firms and the New York City Bar Association in response to federal cuts in legal services funding. VOLS’ purpose was to leverage private attorneys to provide free legal services to low income New Yorkers to fill the gap left by the cuts in federal funding. We are now 35 years into our existence and VOLS currently runs six projects,including our Elderly Project, through which we recently launched a Veterans Initiative.  

Through the Veterans Initiative, VOLS helps low income senior Veterans obtain critical life planning documents, assists senior Veterans facing landlord-tenant issues, and conducts a weekly legal clinic at the 23rd Street VA hospital Manhattan where we assist senior veterans with a range of legal issues. The Veterans Initiative is part of the Elderly Project, which conducts 10 additional free legal clinics in senior centers around the City every month; we also provide technical support and trainings on proper end of life planning to community based organizations and to the public; we publish An Advocate’s Guide to SCRIE and A Guide to Burial Assistance and Funeral Planning for New Yorkers in Need; and we access the pro bono services of the private bar by training, supervising and pairing up volunteer lawyers with low income seniors and veterans seeking to have their life planning documents dawn up and executed. This allows low income seniors and senior veterans to get Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Living Wills, Last Wills and Testaments as well as other advance directives done free of charge. These critical documents ensure that our clients’ wishes carried out by the people they love and trust the most. They also ensure that seniors and senior veterans are able to live in the community for as long as possible and help to avoid costly and unpleasant legal proceedings like guardianships if someone becomes incapacitated.

VOLS actively participates in the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, and I came to VOLS after having practiced eviction defense in Kings County Housing Court both before and after the passage of the right to counsel law. My experience in Brooklyn showed me first-hand how important it is for tenants to have an attorney by their side when they are facing eviction. Anyone who has spent even just a little bit of time in housing court can tell you that there is an observable difference in how pro se tenants are treated in court by landlords, landlords’ attorneys, judges, and court staff versus the way represented tenants are treated, and by now we know the vast difference in case outcomes that unrepresented tenants face. As right to counsel expands, we must address areas of the program that are ripe for improvement in our continued effort to improve outcomes for tenants in accordance with the just administration and execution of the law.

Our concern with the current Right to Counsel Program is that due to the income eligibility cap being set at 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, many tenants who need representation but cannot afford it are nevertheless denied access to counsel. Specifically, many of New York City’s veterans who have sacrificed the most in service to our nation are left to stand on their own when facing eviction because the disability benefits they receive from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) puts them at over 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Service Connected Disability benefits are awarded to veterans who are disabled as a result of active military service. These benefits are awarded depending on the severity of the injury or illness incurred during service. Veterans who are so disabled that they are no longer able to work or fully care for themselves are considered 100% Service Connected disabled. Veterans who are 100% disabled include the following: those with limb paralysis or who have had 2 or more limbs amputated, veterans with cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease,  heart disease and other conditions related to Agent Orange exposure for Vietnam and Korean War Era veterans; veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries and PTSD;  veterans with Lou Gehrig's disease; veterans exposed to radiation during service; veterans with multi-symptom illness which developed after service during the Gulf War conflicts; along with many others.

All of these veterans are denied right to counsel under the current law. Typically a 100% service connected disabled veteran will receive just over $3,000 per month from the VA. This places these them above 300% of the Federal Poverty Level and renders them ineligible for a free attorney while still being unable to afford to pay for one. These veterans sacrificed the most for our nation, yet we leave them to stand alone when facing eviction in Housing Court.

As attorneys serving low income senior veterans we see every day the legal issues they face, including and especially those involving housing and eviction. As has been widely reported, veterans make up a disproportionate percentage of the nation’s homeless population. Thanks to federal programs like HUD-VASH Section 8 and Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), as well as local efforts, in December 2015, New York City became the largest city in the country to be certified by the federal government for having "ended" chronic homelessness. The City and its Division of Veterans Services, working along with the VA and community partners, have made tremendous strides in addressing veteran homelessness but we must be vigilant to ensure that this progress is maintained. The best way to address veteran homelessness is to ensure it does not happen in the first place. Increasing eligibility for right to counsel to 400% of the poverty level will ensure that the most disabled veterans, those who have sacrificed the most, can access free legal services and have a fair shot at maintaining their housing. Finally, VOLS recognizes that expanding right to counsel to 400% will require legal service providers and existing staff attorneys to dedicate significantly more resources to hiring and training additional staff attorneys, and will at least initially put a significant strain on the capacity and resources of existing staff – we encourage the city to pass and implement Intro 1104-2018 in a manner that takes the very real and valid logistical concerns that legal service providers have regarding expansion and the sustainability of staff attorney positions into account.

Thank you again for giving us the opportunity to testify. Volunteers of Legal Services looks forward to working with the City Council and the administration to ensure that New York City is able to best support our veterans in need. 

Jess Penkoff - Staff Attorney, Elderly Project & Veterans Initiative, Volunteers of Legal Service 

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To watch the video of the hearing and VOLS’ testimony, click here.