Posted by Ms. Old Gray Lady on September 19, 2000 at 09:21:54:
In Reply to: Dang, I missed the article!! posted by Kerry on September 19, 2000 at 02:05:36:
September 18, 2000, Monday
Anti-Eviction Programs Pushed by City Hall Are in Disarray
By ERIC LIPTON
The storefront office of Community Law Advocates, a group in the South Bronx
that was established to keep poor families from being evicted into homelessness,
has been shuttered since July, when state criminal investigators seized
everything from its desktop computers to records on the center's welfare clients.
An office at the city's Human Resources Administration in Lower Manhattan
that had been set aside for the agency's coordinator of ''new initiatives'' has sat
vacant since it, too, was searched by investigators. And across the city, a
collaborative effort by the founder of Community Law Advocates and the
Giuliani administration to change the way New York City helps poor families
facing eviction is months behind schedule.
It is far from the situation envisioned by Jason A. Turner, the city's human
resources commissioner, and Deborah J. Pollock, the founder of Community
Law, after they met in 1998 at a Bronx housing court.
Ms. Pollock, 42, had spent 10 years at the Legal Aid Society as a housing court
advocate when she and Mr. Turner decided to team up. Their approach was to
encourage poor families about to be evicted to move to more affordable
apartments or to persuade landlords to cut claims of past-due rent, as a way to
reduce the reliance on government to pay off large debts on behalf of these
But like other major components of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's high-profile
campaign to change the city's welfare system, the eviction-prevention program
has turned out to be far more complicated -- and controversial -- than expected.
Community Law and Ms. Pollock, who set up the organization in 1998, are now
the subject of a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office and
other law enforcement officials, who are examining rental assistance
applications submitted by the group on behalf of poor city residents to determine
whether mistakes were made or information was falsified, officials close to the
The investigators are trying to determine if Community Law, in collaboration
with some landlords, falsified applications to the state to arrange extra welfare
payments to landlords to cover recipients' past-due rent, two officials close to
the inquiry said.
Investigators are also looking into Community Law's fund-raising methods.
A Community Law official told a reporter that in the last two years, the
organization had asked about 20 landlords to donate to Community Law 10
percent of any past-due rent it had collected on their behalf. Some legal
advocates for the poor have questioned the practice, asking how Community
Law could demand necessary repairs to run-down apartments at the same time
it was soliciting donations.
''There is an inherent conflict between being paid by the landlord and
representing the tenant,'' said Steven Banks, deputy attorney in charge for the
Legal Aid Society.
The Human Resources Administration has been pulled into the inquiry at least
superficially because it hired Ms. Pollock last year as a consultant. And before
the criminal investigation began, Ms. Pollock was offered an executive-level
post at Human Resources, as its coordinator of new initiatives, and Community
Law also bid unsuccessfully on a large Human Resources contract. Those
moves are now the subject of a separate conflict-of-interest inquiry by the city's
Department of Investigation, a city official said. Ms. Pollock did not take the job.
Vincent L. Briccetti, a lawyer representing Community Law, did not dismiss the
possibility that factual errors had been made on applications submitted to the
state. ''But I am certainly not aware of and do not believe that there was any
fraud committed by Community Law Advocates or its employees,'' Mr. Briccetti
Ronald Kliegerman, a Manhattan lawyer representing Ms. Pollock, said he had
''not heard anything of a concrete nature that anyone has committed a crime.''
Mr. Turner, the human resources commissioner, said the criminal inquiry into
Community Law had nothing to do with his agency. And as far as he is
concerned, the new approach to eviction prevention is a success, despite the
delay in expanding it to all of the city's welfare centers. ''We are rolling it out
citywide,'' Mr. Turner said.
Advocates for the poor say it is no surprise that the anti-eviction initiative,
which has received little public notice, is the subject of so much scrutiny. ''It's
directly as a result of the arrogant, ideologically inspired way they are doing
this,'' said Glenn Pasanen, of City Project, a nonprofit social services advocacy
Community Law officials say all scrutiny and the questions about their
operations are unjustified; they attribute the impetus for the inquiry in part to
groups that oppose the innovations. These include some groups of lawyers and
traditional social service agencies that would see their caseloads, and fees,
reduced if the innovations were successful.
''Community Law Advocates was under scrutiny from the moment of inception
because we represented a threat to the status quo,'' said one person associated
with the organization, who asked not to be identified because of the
The initiative has its origins in a belief shared by Mr. Turner and Ms. Pollock
that the government approach to helping welfare recipients threatened with
homelessness was too slow and too expensive. At times, Mr. Turner said in a
speech in November 1998, the old approach had ''an inadvertently negative
influence on tenants' responsibilities about paying their rent.''
Mr. Turner, who joined the Giuliani administration in early 1998, has moved to
reorganize city welfare intake centers and has hired private companies to put
more emphasis on helping people find jobs, instead of just signing them up for
But both initiatives have been stymied by legal challenges, with advocates for
the poor claiming that the city has wrongly turned away people who need
assistance or has broken rules when hiring contractors.
Preventing homelessness was another area that the administration had hoped to
reorganize and, at least partly, turn over to private groups. For years, the
administration had tried to find a way to eliminate or reduce the $10 million a
year it allocates to nonprofit legal groups that fight evictions for about 10,000
families. The cases typically entailed a request to the state to pay off delinquent
rent and increase a monthly housing allowance, with the lawyers arguing that the
basic subsidy of $312 for a family of four is far too low.
Under Ms. Pollock's program, intervention typically came before landlords took
the tenants to court. It tried to get their landlord to reduce delinquent-rent claims
in return for an accelerated payment from the city, or encourage the tenant to
find a new, less expensive place to live.
Each case settled without going to court would mean one less $1,080 legal fee
for tenant lawyers, which, for critics of the system, was in itself a victory. The
approach also emphasized self-sufficiency, something Mr. Turner had pushed
since his arrival.
''The existing system has not insisted that both tenants and landlords take
responsibility for working out their differences because the Human Resources
Administration, in the form of the taxpayer, has been bailing the tenants out,''
Mr. Turner said.
Ms. Pollock and Community Law at first worked independently of city
government, helping about 1,800 families negotiate deals with landlords, a
Community Law official said. Several welfare recipients interviewed who turned
to the group for help had no complaints.
''They did everything good for me and my mom,'' said Luz Ortiz, 31, of the
Bronx, who said her rent troubles were resolved in part through Community
Mr. Turner hired Ms. Pollock as a city consultant in January 1999. The intent
was to introduce her eviction-prevention techniques to all the city's welfare
intake centers by the end of 1999, city documents show. Then the city, like
Community Law, would try to negotiate settlements with landlords or encourage
tenants to move, trying whenever possible to avoid housing court.
Simultaneously, the city moved to revise rules governing the nonprofit legal
groups, prohibiting organizations that had filed or intended to file class-action
lawsuits, like Legal Aid, from getting anti-eviction compensation. These
lawsuits -- on behalf of the homeless and regarding the city's efforts to revamp
welfare -- had infuriated the Giuliani administration, which intended the new
rules to block the lawsuits. Mr. Turner spoke with Ms. Pollock and another
group with close ties to the administration about jointly bidding to take some of
these eviction cases, two participants said.
''The city wanted to open it up to a group with a different philosophy that
believed in personal responsibility,'' said Dennis Saffran, executive director of
the Center for the Community Interest, a conservative advocacy group that is a
strong supporter of Mr. Giuliani.
Mr. Turner's plan to roll out the new eviction-prevention technique citywide has
been repeatedly delayed. Instead of reaching 29 welfare centers by the end of
1999, as the administration has said was its goal, it has been in only 5 since
December, when Ms. Pollock's $20,000 consulting contract ended. City officials
said that even with this modest start, the program helped 2,500 families to
maintain housing or move to new apartments.
But the effort to bring new legal aid groups into the pool of contractors that
defend tenants in housing court failed. Ultimately, the city backed down on its
ban on any class-action lawsuits, and Legal Aid, along with all the other groups
that had long defended welfare clients, won contracts again. The bid submitted
by Community Law was rejected in late July.
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