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July/August 2012 Volunteer Feature: Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP Saves Public Housing for Low-Income New Yorkers and Fights to Maintain Housing Subsidies

Monday, August 06, 2012

  • Organization: The Legal Aid Society

Photo of Weil volunteersWeil, Gotshal & Manges LLP Advantage team from left to right: Frank Grese, Konrad Caiteux, Jesse Morris, Emily Pincow, Adam Lavine & Debra Dandeneau. Not pictured: Isabella Lacayo & Kyle Ortiz

In the summer of 2011 Weil’s pro bono leadership and Richard Davis, The Legal Aid Society’s Chair and former Weil partner, asked The Legal Aid Society how the firm could most effectively utilize its pro bono power to address the justice gap for low-income tenants. Weil, which already was devoting thousands of hours as co-counsel with Legal Aid on a class action lawsuit to prevent New York City from terminating 16,000 households from the housing subsidy Advantage Program, wanted to develop a comprehensive pro bono strategy to save irreplaceable affordable housing.

Working with Legal Aid, the firm developed a housing project in which every first year associate, transactional and litigation, would represent Legal Aid clients facing eviction from their public housing New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”) apartments. To kick-off this innovative pro bono project, senior Legal Aid housing attorney Lucy Newman conducted a mandatory training attended by 72 Weil attorneys. The firm’s partnership made a major commitment to the success of the project, which is led by partners Ronit Berkovich, Bruce Colbath, Debra Dandeneau, Paul Ferrillo, Joseph Verdesca, and Elizabeth Weiswasser -- all of whom have previously supervised housing pro bono matters. Shortly after the initial training, first year associates began to work on cases in which NYCHA had commenced a Termination of Tenancy proceeding against individual tenants and families.

During the first four months of the project Weil attorneys, many of whom are in the corporate practice, have represented 20 clients. Their efforts have been successful in preserving the tenants’ NYCHA homes and ensuring that they continue to receive vital Section 8 housing subsidies. Examples of the outstanding work accomplished by the Weil attorneys include:

  • On a fixed income of approximately $700.00 per month, a 69-year-old Cuban American man faced loss of his home due to alleged chronic late payment of rent. The deaths of his mother and sister and the costs of their burial arrangements left him unable to pay rent for three months. Weil associates and Legal Aid convinced NYCHA to drop the charges.
  • A mentally ill and illiterate formerly homeless senior was nearly evicted when NYCHA improperly terminated his Section 8 housing subsidy. After a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation facility after surgery to repair two broken legs, he returned home to find eviction papers as a result of the loss of the subsidy. Weil associates filed an Article 78 proceeding challenging NYCHA’s actions and negotiated a settlement in which NYCHA agreed prospectively and retroactively to reinstate the client’s Section 8 subsidy.
  • A single mother, working nights, faced termination of her housing tenancy based on her alleged failure to pay rent. The client had withheld her rent after repeated requests for NYCHA to repair the dangerous conditions in her apartment, including broken power outlets with exposed wires and nails protruding from the floorboards. Weil and Legal Aid provided proof of the conditions in her apartment and convinced the NYCHA attorney to agree to discontinue the case.

Weil has since joined the Society as co-counsel on Pena v. Doar, a class action on behalf of thousands of low-income families at risk of becoming homeless because they have been blocked from applying to the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement program, a rental assistance program designed to avert evictions and homelessness.

Weil’s major investment of pro bono services on behalf of low-income tenants is exceptional in New York City. The widespread participation by the firm’s transactional attorneys is unique and runs counter to the conventional wisdom that transactional attorneys only can provide corporate based pro bono legal services. As the project continues to grow, we look forward to the firm strengthening its already strong knowledge base of housing law, representing larger numbers of clients, and continuing its partnership with The Legal Aid Society to address systemic problems with New York’s public housing system.

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