February 1, 2016
Maria was like many others in New York City — working hard, paying her rent on time. After years of stability, however, the bottom fell out. Maria’s husband left her and their four children. Then she had a stroke, leaving her partially disabled. Within a year, all of her savings were gone. She could no longer pay her $1,700 rent, and she had fallen $11,000 behind. Her longtime landlord began eviction proceedings.
New York City data shows that approximately 225,000 cases involving nonpayment of rent are filed each year, of which nearly 30,000 result in eviction. For far too many low-income New Yorkers, an eviction is a trigger for a wide range of negative outcomes associated with housing instability — children failing in school, anxiety and depression, and long-term poverty.
What’s more, there is a huge imbalance in negotiating muscle within Housing Court. Typically only about 10 percent of tenants have an attorney, while nearly all landlords have representation. Even if tenants qualify for free legal assistance, most are unable to obtain it, due to lack of funding for legal service providers.
Ignacio Jaureguilorda (’02) leads the fellows of the Poverty Justice Solutions project.
Now, however, Maria and thousands of other tenants have hope, thanks to Poverty Justice Solutions, a new program that funds the cost of placing recent law school graduates in two-year fellowships as paid staff attorneys at legal and social services agencies dealing with New York City housing issues. Of the first group of 20 fellows, four are CUNY Law alumni.
Poverty Justice Solutions takes its inspiration from New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.
“I was trying to grapple with the disconnect between more and more students coming out of law schools and not being able to find jobs, and the desperate need by the poor for legal services,” says Lippman.
He came up with the idea of linking a new program to the Pro Bono Scholars Program, which he also founded, that permits third-year students to take the bar exam early in return for spending their final semester performing pro bono service for the poor. The Robin Hood Foundation and the City are splitting the cost of each fellow’s salary.
Poverty Justice Solutions is under the direction of CUNY Law alumnus Ignacio Jaureguilorda (’02), who was seemingly destined for social justice work.
Born in Argentina, he is the son of politically active parents who were imprisoned for four years by the military junta that replaced Isabel Perón, and then exiled to the U.S. He practiced public interest law for 14 years, most recently as the director of legal services for the AIDS Center of Queens County.
“Our goal is to make Housing Court a place where low-income people can seek justice,” Jaureguilorda says of the program. In addition to the long hours the fellows are putting in representing clients, Jaureguilorda has them attend weekly workshops that focus on problem solving and procedural justice issues. In the second year, he plans to have each of them take on an individual project that deals with a legal issue of strong personal interest.
“Our hope for next year is to get an additional class of 20 fellows and double our numbers,” he says. “Then we will really begin to build momentum.”
The Poverty Justice Solutions fellows are doing their part, case by case. For Maria, who was aided by fellow Joseph Schofield, it involved a complex negotiation that resulted in a lower rent, a new lease, and a reduction in back rent owed. It was a small victory for the fellows, but a lifesaving win for Maria and her children.
Chelsea Breakstone (’15)
“I always wanted to do social justice work.”—Chelsea Breakstone (’15)
“I always wanted to do social justice work at heart,” says Chelsea Breakstone, “but it took going to law school to point me in the right direction.”
Breakstone has found a home for her heart at the Bronx program of Legal Services NYC, an agency whose Manhattan program she interned for as a law student.
“Most of our cases involve people who have exhausted all of their resources and come to us in the 11th hour,” she explains.
Breakstone likens those instances to the triaging process in a hospital emergency room—cases are grouped according to immediacy of need.
“The successful outcomes,” she says, “are those cases where I can keep families, especially those with minor children, in the home and out of the shelter system. Then I can work with them on maintaining affordable housing moving forward.”
Michael Connors (’15)
“Vulnerable populations in our society desperately need competent legal representation.” —Michael Connors (’15)
Michael Connors has seen firsthand how the law can help those who cannot help themselves.
“I had a couple of elderly family members with a slew of issues involving the court system,” he says. “One was my aunt, who was tricked into signing a quitclaim document in return for a payment of $10,000 for a piece of property that was worth nearly $1 million. It was difficult to find an attorney to represent her because she was of modest means, and the only motivation was the piece of property. My dad finally found one. That experience showed me that there are vulnerable populations in our society who desperately need competent legal representation.”
Now Connors finds himself being the needed legal representation for vulnerable communities as a staff attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group. On a recent Friday afternoon, a client showed up who had just been evicted by the marshal for nonpayment of rent. “I went through the files, found defects, appeared before the court attorney, argued the case, and settled with the landlord to get the individual back into possession of the apartment,” he explains.
Dealing every day with clients in dire situations can be emotionally draining, he says, but “the reward for my efforts is having good outcomes and helping people stay in their homes. That gives me more than enough motivation to go to work in the morning.”
Sharone Miodovsky (’15)
“I see my role as providing as much clarity as I can.”
—Sharone Miodovsky (’15)
Sharone Miodovsky laughs when asked if her upbringing had anything to do with her career choice. “I went to Jewish elementary and high schools, and through the curriculum they really hammered social justice values into us,” she says, “but this work is also the fulfillment of my adult professional dreams.”
The Los Angeles native came to New York a dozen years ago for college and never looked back. She worked for several years after graduating, and her experiences solidified her choices of both career and enrollment in CUNY Law. “I spent a year in India working in international development,” she says. “It changed my whole life and made me want to find a job where I could make an impact.”
She later worked for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, and the experience reinforced her interest in law school. “Many of the attorneys I worked with had gone to CUNY [Law] and urged me to apply there.”
Through the fellowship, Miodovsky is working in the Bronx as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Housing Help Program.
“The clients I work with are extremely appreciative of my efforts,” she says. “Often their court cases have dragged on, and it’s a big relief when they can meet with an attorney. I see my role as providing as much clarity as I can. So often they’re dealing with ambiguities and getting shuffled around. I try to simplify that.”
Joseph Schofield (’15)
“The belief that stuck with me most was that an attorney can be a shield.” —Joseph Schofield (’15)
Joseph Schofield’s earliest legal influence was his father, who was an attorney in a small firm. “The belief that stuck with me the most was that an attorney can be a shield,” he says. “When you need one, it can seem like the whole world is against you. In those instances, your attorney is the person standing between you and your problems.”
Today, working in the housing division of the New York Legal Assistance Group in Queens, where he also interned as a law student, Schofield represents people who aren’t used to having a shield. He had similar experiences during internships at Brooklyn Legal Services and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “In Queens, there are a lot of two-family homes, and tenants don’t have as many rights as they would in a rent-stabilized building,” he says.
But working with clients now differs greatly from how it was when he was an intern. “Something magical has happened,” says Schofield. “The responsibility is now ours, and we can fully advocate for the client. The origins of landlord–tenant law go back to feudalism, and the landlord holds most of the power. My job is to create leverage.”