Updated March 10 at 2:18 p.m.
Tenant organizers in West Harlem launched the Tenant Empowerment Program, which aims to connect tenants with legal services and create and strengthen tenant associations in the neighborhood, last Saturday in order to help residents navigate through misinformation and a lack of awareness in the landlord-tenant relationship.
On Saturday, the West Harlem Club, an offshoot of the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club, which was created in April 2013, launched TEP.
"A lot of tenants are scared," Alicia Barksdale, tenant association president at the housing complex 3333 Broadway, who is not affiliated with TEP, said. "They just want to pay the rent and don't want to cause any friction."
While legal help is available to West Harlem tenants from organizations like the Legal Aid Society and the Center for Urban Community Services, a combination of fear and a lack of knowledge often prevents tenants from reaching out, according to organizers.
Corey Ortega, head of the West Harlem Club, said that the TEP is designed to empower residents by giving them information about the legal aspects of tenant associations.
"We're going to teach everybody: 'Alright, these are the basics, this is what you do to start a tenant association, these are the benefits, how to protect yourself, and how to get the repairs and the legal documents,'" Ortega said of the program.
Tenant associations enable residents to legally conduct a rent strike by temporarily holding the unpaid rent in the association, since individual undeclared rent strikes are illegal.
Robin LoGuidice, a partner in Grimble & LoGuidice LLC, said that often legal battles result in losses for the tenants because they don't have legal counsel.
"Once that tenant reaches court, nine out of 10 [times] there is a landlord attorney and the tenants don't have them," LoGuidice said.
Unlike criminal courts, housing courts do not automatically assign lawyers to tenants. Tenants are instead encouraged to seek legal counsel with a number of organizations like the LAS and the CUCS that often offer counsel for free. Still, these services are in high demand, according to LoGuidice.
"The free services that are available to tenants … are so overworked, and while there are good attorneys, they don't always have time to explain [the services]," LoGuidice said.
Tenant Association, President Barksdale added that tenants are often wary of conflict with landlords, which causes them to not request services landlords are obligated to provide.
TEP hopes to provide existing and already formed associations with the legal resources necessary to make sure tenants have access to counsel. One of the law firms that the TEP currently works with is Grimble & LoGuidice.
"We also have attorneys—attorneys that are going to represent the tenant association pretty much free of charge," Ortega said.
Barksdale also stressed that tenant associations have a better chance of winning their cases in court.
"When we go as a tenant association we represent the whole building and the problems that were happening at the moment," Barksdale said.
In addition to providing support for individual tenants, the TEP hopes to amplify residents' concerns to politicians by providing contacts with local community boards.
"All this contact information we're going to give to the community boards and the elected officials, so they know where to go and who to reach out to," Ortega said.
The TEP currently has 30 volunteers on staff. These volunteers will reach out to tenants and tenant associations in West Harlem through phone banking, canvassing, and emailing to get as much information through to tenants as possible.
"We want to track, monitor, have statistics. We want to know how many people came to our legal clinic, we want to know how many people were serviced, we want to know how many tenant associations started," Ortega said.
If the program is successful, Ortega plans to expand it to Washington Heights, East Harlem, and eventually other districts.
"We know the elected officials in East Harlem, we know the guys in Washington Heights. Then after that, we take a step back and see where else we would want to expand the program."
However, the main challenge for the TEP now is funding, as it currently relies mainly on private donations.
"What we're doing is, anybody that's working for us we're asking them for sponsorship," Ortega said. "The first people that have been asked to donate are pro-tenant attorneys and law firms."
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