Legal Aid Society

A Day In The Life

Preventing Evictions in the Citywide Housing Justice Practice

Munonyedi “Mun” Clifford, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid’s Citywide Housing Practice, was raised by a single mother who fought hard to pay the rent and get her 4 children through school. As a young adult, she saw her mother negotiate her way out of an eviction case, and fight foreclosure on a home she bought in Staten Island. These were formative experiences.

“I thought, how awful that she had to navigate this whole entire thing by herself,” said Mun. “It got me thinking, what can I do after college where I can help people like my mom.”

While in Law School, she began volunteering at Staten Island Legal Services in their Home Owners Defense Project, where attorneys assisted low-income families get modifications of their subprime loans, an Obama-era program that helped struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Mun began her career at Legal Aid as a staff attorney in the housing practice at The Harlem Community Law Office in 2011. She has witnessed the effects of greed, gentrification, and predatory practices on low-income communities of color which has served to strengthen her commitment to the fight for racial and housing justice.

There are so many studies on the destabilizing effect evictions have – especially on people of color. It would not be an over statement to say that housing attorneys are saving lives by keeping families in their homes.

Until 2017, New Yorkers did not have guaranteed representation in housing court during eviction proceedings, and low-income tenants went up against powerful landlords and their attorneys. When the Right to Counsel law was passed, it offered hope to these tenants in the form of representation. Mun led the Expanded Legal Services (ELS) Project in Manhattan. ELS was an early iteration of the the Right to Counsel program. She also served as a deputy director of the Housing Rights Practice at Queens Legal Services.

While there are certainly growing pains, the Right to Counsel program is highly effective. Tenants who have an attorney in an eviction proceeding are less likely to be subject to a possessory judgment, the money judgments in these cases are less than in cases where the tenant is unrepresented, and these tenants are less likely to have a warrant of eviction issued against them. Additionally, tenants who are represented by attorneys are almost guaranteed to remain housed.

The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and expiring eviction protections have caused eviction proceedings in New York City to spike, exceeding the capacity of service providers like Legal Aid to provide representation to all the tenants in need of an attorney. The result is low-income New Yorkers appearing in housing court without an attorney.

Legal Aid has repeatedly called on The New York State Office of Court Administration to end this crisis of non-representation by capping eviction cases at a level that matches the capacity of legal service providers, ensuring all eligible tenants are paired with an attorney.

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