December 5, 2013
Randy Petsche (’89) had 14 years of experience in landlord-tenant law and a number of years as a volunteer tenants’ organizer on the lower west side of Manhattan before joining Bronx AIDS Services (BAS).
“It’s not easy to get experienced attorneys in this field, but I showed up,” says Petsche, who joined BAS in 2005 and stayed until he retired this year at the age of 63. Since then, BAS had merged with CitiWide Harm Reduction, a needle exchange program. The new entity is now known as BOOM!Health and continues to provide legal services to both HIV-positive and non-positive clients.
“BAS wasn’t like a large law firm such as Legal Aid Society. It was rooted in the community and the fight against AIDS, to obtain benefits for AIDS victims,” Petsche says. “It was quite rewarding.”
As a housing attorney, Petsche’s cases typically involved non-payment of rent and any other reason a landlord might cite to try to remove an HIV-positive tenant. The drama would unfold in Bronx Housing Court, one of the biggest courthouses in the country and hearing tens of thousands of cases a year. Petsche’s clients needed him to navigate housing court and keep a roof over their heads.
“The Bronx is the poorest county in the Northeast: 30 percent of the population is living in poverty. Increasingly, it seems that AIDS is a disease of poverty,” he says, “so it’s not surprising that there’s a high incidence of HIV-positive people in the Bronx. It might be among the highest in the five counties of New York City.”
One case that resonated with Petsche over his long career centers on an HIV-positive Honduran client and the New York City Housing Authority. The client was trying to inherit tenancy rights from his common law wife who had just died. Together they had four children. The client was undocumented and, therefore, could not obtain the social security card required for Housing Authority tenancy. Instead, the Housing Authority began eviction proceedings against him and his four children, three of whom had been born in the United States.
As the client agreed to waive confidentiality regarding his HIV-positive status, Petsche argued that he needed to stay in the United States because HIV vaccines were not available in Honduras at the time, and the State Department would not approve deportations in those cases.
“Rather than fight the case,” says Petsche, “the Housing Authority backed off and gave the client and his family tenancy in a four-bedroom apartment. We forced them to adjust their own rules.”
While CUNY Law does a great job preparing students to become advocates and activists for HIV/AIDS organizations, Petsche believes, the school also has a strong network in place that has helped direct more CUNY grads to do this kind of work.
“It’s not a high-paid area, but it is socially useful and necessary,” he says, “to do the kind of work we do.”
– Paul Lin