Tenants and Landlords

November 26 2016

On a late summer day in 2009, I reported for my first shift as a hotline counselor at a tenants' rights organization in Chicago. I had volunteered to answer calls from tenants who were uncertain about their rights, many of whom were on the brink of losing their homes.

My first caller was a single mother of two who lived paycheck to paycheck and had been living in conditions most of us couldn't imagine. Her bathroom ceiling was leaking and covered with mold, until one day it started to fall down. A chunk of plaster narrowly missed her two-year-old daughter in the bathtub. She called her landlord, who did nothing. Then, her power went out. The landlord hadn't paid the electric bill, and he ignored her calls. To get her lights back on, the tenant joined together with her neighbors to pay the massive past-due electric bill, and deducted the cost from her rent.

It was then that the landlord acted. Not to make repairs, but to promptly bring the tenant to ""eviction court"" for the rent she withheld. Suddenly, this tenant, who had already endured so much, was at risk of losing everything: the roof over her head; the only home she could afford. The landlord, meanwhile, faced virtually no punishment for abandoning his tenants. At the center of this tenant's crisis is the fact that she would likely have to go to court without the help of a lawyer. Studies have shown that roughly 98% of landlords have lawyers in housing court, while in many cities, fewer than 5% of tenants have counsel, making it nearly impossible to assert their rights.

To this day, I don't know if the tenant got a lawyer, whether she won her eviction case, or whether her landlord ever fixed the gaping hole in her ceiling. I know so little about her, yet she impacted my life in such powerful ways. Her story motivated me to keep volunteering on the hotline, and inspired me to become a tenants' rights lawyer so that people like her have a fighting chance against abusive landlords.

Today, I'm a lawyer at a nonprofit in Brooklyn, representing tenants against landlords who are harassing them, discriminating against them, and refusing to make repairs. The balance of power between tenants and landlords is as infuriating as ever, and sometimes I'm left feeling hopeless. A tenant who misses just one rent payment can be at the brink of losing her home in less than a month. But when a landlord breaks his end of the bargain, it often takes years for tenants to get justice---if they ever do.

At the same time, I'm on the upside of another great imbalance. When I'm talking to a tenant living in unlivable conditions, I think of my own cozy apartment and sing Brett Dennen lyrics in my head: ""In a world of suffering, why should I be so blessed?"" There is no answer to that question. But I strive every day to pay back my blessings.

Three other things:
1) Shoutout to the Metropolitan Tenants' Organization in Chicago, where I volunteered on the hotline, and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, where I work now. They're great orgs, donate to them if you can!
2) Volunteering has changed my life for the better, and it's a great way to connect meaningfully with other people. In my city, New York Cares and NYC Service are great ways to find volunteer opportunities; worldwide, the website Idealist is a great resource.
3) Email me if you're in/near NYC and want to get a drink.

Joanna Laine
Brooklyn, NY
joannalistserve@gmail.com


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