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State Legislation Aims To Give CNY Tenants Facing Eviction More Leverage In Court

Scott Willis

Legislation introduced in both houses of the state legislature could give tenants facing eviction in Syracuse and across upstate more leverage in court.  The Right to Counsel measure aims to slow down eviction cases by ensuring every tenant has a right to an attorney. 

Syracuse Tenants Union founder Palmer Harvey says sudden eviction proceedings in court can deal a devastating blow to tenants when they’re not properly represented.

"The problem is the tenants have no clue about what comes next, what to expect, what to say to the judge, if they have documentation.  Documentation is important. It's a basic thing.  You'd be surprised how many people go there with a complete level of naivete." 

Senator Rachel May has introduced a series of housing bills in her chamber. 

"If you had counsel ahead of time, you would have brought the right documents.  You will have known what you need in order to make your best case in court.  But if you just show up and randomly have someone assigned to you, all they've got is your story."

The way it works now is tenants arrive in court and get only a few minutes to seek out an attorney and explain their situation before the case goes before a judge.  Advocates say this often leads to payment arrangements that ultimately don’t prevent evictions.  Kathy Royal experienced this firsthand.  She’s a single mother of three and a domestic violence survivor who’s ex-husband and breadwinner left the state, leaving Kathy with no income and a lot of debt.  Royal says her landlord knew the situation, but she ended up homeless. 

Sen. Rachel May.

"I called DSS (department of social services), I still didnt' get an answer.  I called legal aid, the lawyer wouldn't answer.  So now I'm homeless living in my car.  Even though I had that lawyer, he didn't do anything for me because he didn't stop me from being homeless.  If I had a lawyer who listened to my issues, I beleive that would have made a big difference for me."

Another bill would protect tenants from eviction who report code violations. Sha’Ron Mott-Vogelsang says her landlord retaliated when she reported them. 

"I went months with a faulty furnace and water heater to the point where National Grid had to tag them. The gas leak was so bad, the children and I were getting sick from gas exposure.  My landlord locked the basement to keep from further investigation.  We finally moved due to pressure from the landlord."

Senator May says the constant moving leads to unstable neighborhoods, increased crime, struggles finding and keeping a job, and disruptions for children.  Her legislation mirrors many of the protections afforded tenants in New York City.  She says there’s plenty of support in both chambers, and could pass this session.  But it would have to go through the budget process, meaning it wouldn’t take effect until next year.  Neither May nor her staff could provide a cost estimate. 

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at