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Board Of Legislators Public Hearing Statment Nov 2020

Legal Services of the Hudson Valley

2020 Westchester County Budget Public Input Session, 11/18/2020

My name is Jill Bradshaw-Soto, and I am the Attorney-In-Charge of the Mt. Vernon office of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and the incoming Chief Program Officer for the Agency.  LSHV is the sole provider in the Hudson Valley of free, comprehensive, legal services in civil matters for individuals and families who cannot afford an attorney when their basic human needs are at stake. This includes urgent legal needs such as: housing emergencies (eviction and foreclosure prevention); domestic violence (orders of protection, child custody, etc.), healthcare, children’s advocacy, disability and benefits, elder law, consumer fraud and more.  In pursuit of this mission, LSHV maintains a staff of 165 individuals, including 100 attorneys and 35 paralegals working across nine offices throughout our service area.  The majority of our staff work out of our four offices in Westchester County located in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, White Plains, and Peekskill.

In 2019, in Westchester LSHV handled 6,615 cases, which impacted a total of 15,300 household members.  Westchester County has a long-standing history of supporting legal services and we are so thankful for this support from the County Executive and Board of Legislators.  We are grateful that in the County Executive’s proposed budget he included a 2% increase to non-profits.  We also support the Westchester Women’s Agenda request to increase funding for these essential services.  Additionally, we also appreciate that Westchester taxpayers recognize the importance of our work and role of non-profits in the County in wanting to create an environment that supports our co-workers, neighbors, and those of us who need it so that we can all thrive together in a diverse, inclusive, and equitable County.

Civil legal services is vital in a just society.  In more than 70% of civil cases, people who cannot afford legal representation end up going to court alone – and many lose everything.  This means that domestic violence survivors cannot get away from their abusers.  Disabled individuals cannot afford the basic necessities of life and families become homeless.  Children who become homeless are typically set back six months or more in their education.  Communities endure enormous costs in the form of providing shelter, increased social services, and other emergency services.  Not to mention the disintegration and destabilization of neighborhoods.

Even before COVID hit, Westchester County was experiencing a serious affordable housing crisis.  Affordable housing is a sparse and valuable resource.  In the last three years, Westchester lost 3,000 subsidized units, which is a 10% decline.  The high costs of sheltering a family – up to $78,000 a year will become even higher if the County has to turn to motels as a form of sheltering families.  This high financial toll does not include the devastating traumatic emotional toll parents and children experience when they are displaced from their homes, forced to change schools, and be torn from their friends and support networks.

In 2019, there were 9,344 eviction petitions filed in Westchester and that does not include petitions filed in the County’s 36 town and village courts.  By all accounts, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated the housing crisis and it is predicted that there will be a tsunami of evictions to follow.  The partial moratoria issued by NYS and the federal government have been helpful to some tenants, but not all tenants are eligible.  Further, tenants need attorneys to prove to the court their eligibility for protection under these moratoria.  95% of landlords who bring an eviction proceeding in Housing Court are represented by an attorney.  In contrast, 95% of tenants appear in housing court without counsel.  The consequences are dire – families are evicted, enter into unfavorable settlement agreements, or remain in substandard and unsafe housing.

LSHV prevents evictions and consequently saves Westchester County valuable taxpayer dollars.  In 2019 alone, LSHV prevented 1,059 evictions in Westchester County, impacting 2,649 household members with an estimated savings to the County of close to $21 million.  Overall in 2019, LSHV saved Westchester taxpayers over $29 million – which includes the eviction prevention cost savings along with cost savings from assisting residents in obtaining federal benefits and securing orders of protection on behalf of victims of domestic violence.

We urge the County to continue to invest in eviction prevention to provide access to legal representation to residents facing eviction.  These cases are about much more than simply paying rental arrears.  They are about maintaining the limited and valuable supply of rent stabilized and subsidized apartments in Westchester; they are about holding landlords accountable for maintaining habitable living conditions; and they are about equalizing the power imbalance in our court system by ensuring that before the basic right of housing is taken away from a family, their legal rights are asserted in court.

Keep Westchester thriving by keeping Westchester residents in their homes and out of homeless shelters.  Please ensure that low income residents at risk of homelessness are given access to justice.  The County’s partnership with LSHV will prevent homelessness and promote family and neighborhood stability.  We are grateful to the County’s long-standing support of civil legal services.  Thank you.