April 15, 2012
A client had to travel to Egypt because his mother had died. When he returned to New York City, he was on the verge of losing his home. MFY Legal Services, where several CUNY Law and Economic Justice Project alumni are staff attorneys, took on his case.
While the client had been gone, he had missed a deadline associated with continuing his enrollment in Section 8. His rental subsidy was terminated, and his landlord eventually took him to court for nonpayment of rent.
With MFY’s help, the client was reinstated in the program and was able to keep his home. “People are terminated from the Section 8 program for many reasons. Oftentimes, it is in error, or an excusable defense exists for why the benefit should be reactivated,” said Orier Okumakpeyi (’06), staff attorney at MFY.
From left: Tanya Kessler (’09), Orier Okumakpeyi (’06), and Rachel Spector (’07)
MFY provides free legal assistance to underserved people in New York City. Okumakpeyi focuses primarily on clients with mental health disabilities and low-income Manhattan seniors.
“The populations I work with tend to have targets on their backs,” she said. “For example, elderly people residing in Manhattan, by and large, live in rent-regulated apartments. Many landlords… focus their eviction cases on these individuals, in order to further the goals of deregulation and charge market-rate rents.”
Housing is also a focus of the class action lawsuit that MFY has filed in Kings County on behalf of tenants living in what is known as three-quarter housing.
Many three-quarter facilities, which typically rent temporarily to homeless people or people returning from prison, “make a lot of promises” about their programs and supportive services, according to Tanya Kessler (’09), staff attorney at MFY. But “they don’t help people get [long-term] housing. They don’t help with job training or further education. They don’t provide any of the services they promise.”
Instead, Kessler says, residents may be placed in overcrowded rooms in buildings with hazardous conditions. The lawsuit includes claims of illegal eviction, harassment, and violations of rent stabilization laws.
At MFY, Kessler and Okumakpeyi work alongside two other CUNY Law alumni—Rachel Spector (’07) and Garen McClure (’06).
Kessler began as a Skadden Fellow at MFY and stayed on after her fellowship. But before she was a lawyer, she was a caseworker for people with mental health issues and a community organizer working with adult home residents with disabilities.
“The more I saw, the more I wanted to be in a position to work toward change rather than trying to address individual problems within the system,” Kessler said.
Okumakpeyi was inspired to become a lawyer because of the unfairness she saw while she was the housing director for Pathways to Housing.
“When you enter housing court, a majority of people are not represented by attorneys, but landlords are,” Okumakpeyi said. “It is not a level playing field.”
Both came to CUNY Law and joined the Economic Justice Project (EJP), which pairs CUNY Law students with CUNY undergraduates who receive public assistance but are having problems receiving their benefits.
“I had always been interested in disability rights,” Kessler said. “And public benefits are frequently important to the survival of people with disabilities.”
Okumakpeyi’s EJP client had the first fair hearing of the class, so Okumakpeyi had to get up to speed quickly. “EJP taught me how to immerse myself in an area of the law that I didn’t know much about,” she said. “It also taught me how to build trust and a relationship with a client.”
Kessler appreciated having the full responsibility for representing clients. “It was the best taste of what lawyering is really like: We were required to master a complex body of laws and regulations and develop a theory of the case,” she said. “And we had to be flexible—the clinic showed us how in a hearing, as in court, things can happen on the fly.”