Individual Client Legal Services
The Housing Works Legal Department offers clients advice and representation on matters involving housing, public benefits, family law, wills, advanced directives, consumer issues, and more. Clients seeking assistance should consult with their case manager and sign up for a legal intake clinic at their Housing Works site.
In addition, through the HIV Law Project, Housing Works offers free legal assistance to qualified New York City residents living with HIV in housing, public benefits, SSI/SSD, and immigration. For assistance, clients should call (212) 577-3001. More information can be found at hivlawproject.org
Read below more about our Impact Litigation
For over two decades, Housing Works’ Legal Department has successfully conducted impact litigation on issues involving HIV/AIDS, homelessness, public benefits, disability, and housing and gender discrimination, winning landmark decisions in each of these areas. In 2016, Housing Works (“HW”) received the American Bar Association’s prestigious “Alexander Forger Award,” “For Sustained Excellence in the Provision of HIV Legal Services and Advocacy.” The following are some examples of our work:
Hernandez v. Barrios Paoli: In 1997, Mayor Giuliani announced that all welfare recipients would be forced to undergo an “eligibility verification review” (“EVR”) prior to obtaining subsistence benefits. This onerous process required individuals living with AIDS to travel to Brooklyn for an interview and then to wait at home for an unscheduled inspection; failure to comply would result in a denial or termination of benefits. For clients unable to travel, and/or compelled to attend health care and other appointments, EVR was profoundly difficult or impossible to fulfill, part of the Mayor’s strategy to reduce the welfare rolls by making the application process as cumbersome and difficult as possible (as officials essentially admitted). HW filed suit, and in 1999, as reported on the front page of the New York Times, a unanimous Court of Appeals ruled that the EVR was illegal and must be eliminated.
Hanna v. Turner: In 1998, the City of New York began to deny shelter to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS, telling such individuals to “make your own arrangements.” Homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS and accompanying maladies were forced to fight for their survival on the streets of New York, even in the middle of winter. In court, the City argued for the right to turn clients away if they housed them the next day, i.e, if they survived the night on the streets. In November 1999, Supreme Court Judge Emily Jane Goodman issued a landmark ruling establishing the right of homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS to same-day placement in emergency housing, the first such ruling in the United States.
Hanna v. Turner (contempt): Beginning in late 2000, the City again began to routinely deny emergency housing to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS, a result of the City’s failure, year after year, to construct or secure medically appropriate housing for homeless PWLAs. A “Human Rights Watch” was established to chronicle these violations, and with the testimony of current New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, HW brought contempt proceedings against the City. In 2001, the Appellate Division unanimously upheld the lower court’s finding of contempt, in which the court ordered the City to pay fines to those denied housing and to immediately provide emergency housing to all such clients. Notably, the court also rejected the City’s argument that “substantial compliance” with the law was sufficient: denial of housing to a single indigent New Yorker living with AIDS constitutes contempt.
Winds v. Turner: The emergency housing that the City of New York was providing to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS in the late 1990s and early 2000s was abjectly deplorable and life-threatening, as the City’s own studies concluded. In Winds v. Turner, HW successfully challenged the City’s failure to provide medically appropriate emergency housing to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS. In a September 2002 decision, Supreme Court Judge Eileen Bransten ruled that the plaintiffs had established “that their housing is not suitable for healthy individuals, much less for ‘persons with severely compromised immune systems.’” Judge Bransten explained that “housing that is not habitable because of vermin, filth, lack of furnishings and inaccessibility, certainly cannot be considered ‘suitable.’” Judge Bransten found the facilities provided to petitioners by HASA “deficient in several respects,” and ordered the City immediately to remedy these defects.
Henrietta D. v. Bloomberg: This landmark class action lawsuit, which spanned nearly a decade, established that governments must provide reasonable accommodations in the manner in which they provide subsistence benefits to indigent clients living with AIDS, from low case manager-to-client ratios to home and hospital visits. Following federal trial in 2000, as reported on the front page of the New York Times, Newsday, and various other newspapers and media, Judge Sterling Johnson issued a 97-page decision forcefully condemning the City and State for “chronically and systematically” failing to serve indigent New Yorkers living with AIDS, “with devastating consequences.” In 2003, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision, establishing for the first time that plaintiffs need not prove disparate treatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act in order to establish discrimination. In 2004, the United States Supreme Court dismissed the defendants’ appeal, rendering the decision final. Meanwhile, the City’s Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (“DASIS”) was placed under a federal monitor. For four years, HW reviewed monthly performance reports, operated a “Troubleshooter” office to expedite resolution of (thousands of) client complaints against DASIS, and conducted monthly on-site inspections of DASIS centers throughout the City to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations.
Rawles v. The Educational Alliance: In 2004, HW sued the Educational Alliance (“EA”), a major New York nonprofit, over its refusal to provide housing to a homeless transgender woman. HW secured a wonderful settlement in which EA agreed to pay the plaintiff a fair sum and, in addition, to implement systemic changes to ensure the proper treatment of transgender applicants and clients, including providing staff with sensitivity training on properly serving and working with transgender applicants and clients; adopting policies and procedures for serving transgender clients; using its best efforts to admit and retain qualified transgender applicants in at least one room in EA’s housing facilities; and using its best efforts to hire and retain at least one transgender employee.
Melendez v. Wing: In 2003, HW filed suit challenging a new State policy that significantly reduced public assistance benefits for families in which there was a child receiving federal disability payments. Previously, the City and State considered the disabled child as “invisible,” meaning that her disability benefits were not counted when calculating the family’s rental allowance. The State’s decision to include the disabled child’s payments in the family budget – in violation of New York law – led to a drastic reduction in public assistance payments for the families in question, including the Melendez family, whose public assistance was reduced by over $500 per month. In 2005, the Appellate Division, First Department issued a landmark ruling finding that state and city defendants violated the law in forcing Ms. Melendez to count her disabled child’s SSI payments as available family income. In 2007, the New York Court of Appeals upheld this decision, ultimately benefiting thousands who were similarly affected by the defendants’ policy.
Keith Cylar Act: In 2005, HW played a critical role in formulating and drafting the Keith Cylar Act (named after HW’s co-founder), an act that ensures accountability and protection for tens of thousands of indigent New York City residents living with AIDS. This historic act requires the City to provide the New York City Council with detailed quarterly performance reports regarding its success in providing intensive case management, timely delivery of benefits and services, and medically appropriate housing to more than 40,000 HASA clients living with HIV/AIDS and their families.
Denning v. Barbour: In December 2005, HW and national and local co-counsel filed suit in Mississippi federal court challenging Mississippi’s drastic new restrictions on prescription drug coverage for Medicaid recipients. In 2005, Mississippi passed a new law capping the number of drugs that indigent individuals on Medicaid could obtain each month at no more than five overall, only two of which could be brand name drugs. The law posed a threat to the health and lives of thousands of poor Mississippians who require more than five drugs, or more than two brand name drugs, in order to treat their illnesses and stay alive, including individuals living with HIV and AIDS, whose drug “cocktail” required three brand name drugs. Indeed, named plaintiffs in this class action testified that the restrictions forced them to choose between cancer and HIV medication, pain medication or diabetes treatment, while the state admitted that the restrictions would not be lifted even upon threat of death. The case was successfully concluded when Mississippi changed its policy to soften the caps and permit greater drug coverage. (For more on this case, see “A Choice Between Food and Medicine: Denning v. Barbour and the Struggle for Prescription Drug Coverage Under the Medicaid Act,” 13 The Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Minority Issues 201-229 (2010).)
Rivers v. Doar: In October 2006, the city’s welfare agency, HRA, announced that, owing to a change in state policy, clients living with AIDS who resided in federally subsidized housing would have to contribute all of their income (e.g. federal disability checks or Veterans’ benefits) save $330 toward rent. This was a drastic increase that would leave clients with only $11 a day on which to live, in violation of a federal law capping rental contribution at 30% of income. HW and co-counsel Matthew Brinckerhoff of Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff and Abady LLP rushed to federal court and won a preliminary injunction against the increases on behalf of a class of over 2,200 individuals, some of whom were slated to see their rent contributions nearly tripled overnight. The case was successfully concluded when the state agreed to abandon the policy in the face of the legal challenge.
Bumpus v. New York City Transit Authority: In 2009, the Appellate Division, Second Department upheld a landmark decision finding that the more than 40,000 New York City Transit Authority workers are not immune from the New York City Human Rights Law’s protections against transgender discrimination, including Ms. Bumpus’ claim that she was the victim of vicious transgender-bashing by a transit worker. In a lengthy 2011 decision, Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Sherman further ruled that the Human Rights Law’s gender identity protections do not violate the First Amendment and are not constitutionally vague.
Short v. Manhattan Apartments: In 2012, HW and co-counsel Diane Houk from Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff and Abady LLP conducted the first ever trial over source of income housing discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law. Following a federal bench trial, the court issued a landmark decision finding systemic discrimination by two New York City real estate agencies, including the City’s second biggest rental agency, and awarding monetary and injunctive relief. Among other things, the court ruled that alleged bureaucratic delays and administrative burdens offer no defense to claims of discrimination against those with public housing subsidies or vouchers.
Wilson v. Phoenix House: In 2013, HW secured a landmark decision in this transgender discrimination case finding, among other things, that drug treatment programs are indeed subject to the New York City Human Rights Law and its protections against discrimination based upon gender identity and expression. Notably, the court observed that “there has been a considerable lack of understanding in the courts with regard to issues of concern to this [transgender] population.”
30% Rent Cap: Following up on its victory in Rivers v. Doar, HW played a critical role in drafting the 30% rent cap law for indigent New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. Like the law governing federally subsidized housing, this law provides that indigent New Yorkers with any form of income (e.g., federal disability or Veteran’s benefits) are only required to pay 30% of that income toward rent, obviating the need to choose between paying for food, clothing, and other necessities, and rent.
Source of Income and Disability Discrimination: Over the past several years, Housing Works has been at the forefront of challenging source of income and disability discrimination in New York City’s housing market. Housing Works has secured seminal legal decisions and successfully settled numerous cases – with remedial, injunctive relief in all cases – on behalf of New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS who rely upon public subsidies to secure and maintain their housing, against some of the largest landlords in New York, and indeed the country.