MFY: On The Front Lines Meeting The Legal Needs Of New York City's Most Vulnerable Populations

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Jeanette Zelhof, Interim Executive Director, MFY Legal Services, Inc.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the history of MFY. We'd also love to hear about your professional background.

Zelhof: MFY Legal Services was created in 1963 as the legal arm of Mobilization for Youth, one of the first anti-poverty programs in the country. Social workers and organizers worked with the Lower East Side community in Manhattan to address basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter; attorneys represented community members to achieve these goals.

It was from this movement that MFY brought Goldberg v. Kelly, the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the principle that a state could not terminate public assistance benefits without notice and an opportunity to be heard.

I was living in this neighborhood in the '80s and saw the important work MFY was doing around tenants' rights. I was working in publishing at the same time but wanted to be more involved in social justice issues. So I went to law school with the goal of working at MFY upon graduation, and I have been here since 1987.

Editor: The recession created countless housing problems for New York City residents. Would you tell us how MFY responded to the wave of both foreclosures and evictions? What about three-quarter houses or single-room occupancies (SROs)?

Zelhof: New York City has chronically lacked sufficient affordable housing, so eviction prevention has always been a core area of practice for us. For years, much of our work has been to defend low-income people in eviction proceedings to preserve the precious few affordable units of housing that exist. We do so by assisting clients to obtain rent arrears, obtain and preserve Section 8 and other housing subsidies, clear up nuisances, and defend against meritless cases. SROs have been housing of last resort for low-income New Yorkers for decades, and MFY has worked hard to preserve as many units as possible. Without SROs, people end up in shelters or on the street.

About three years ago, in response to what was clearly becoming a crisis, MFY began a foreclosure defense practice. This was a new area for us, but one in which we quickly gained expertise. We estimate that we are saving one home per week through our work in defending homeowners in foreclosure and negotiating mortgage loan modifications, primarily in hard-hit minority neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island. Our most recent area of housing practice is with "three-quarter" houses.

This is a new housing industry that was cynically named after the successful model of halfway houses, which provide services for people down on their luck with substance abuse and drug problems. After people are recruited to these so-called three-quarter houses, however, they find something very different. The houses provide no support whatsoever, and people end up in bunkbeds - sometimes four to eight per room, often in dangerous conditions. All face arbitrary evictions without cause, notice or court intervention. In addition, many tenants in three-quarter houses are forced to attend a substance abuse program - even if they don't need it and even if the program is not of their choice - in what has been alleged is a Medicaid fraud scheme. If they don't attend and bring back proof of attendance, they are harassed and thrown out of the three-quarter house. Our approach in this area is multi-pronged: we do outreach to three-quarter house residents to advise them of their rights; we represent residents in individual eviction cases; and we have filed two class action lawsuits challenging operators' deceptive and illegal practices.

Editor: MFY does a great deal to help the elderly of NYC. Please tell us about the Manhattan Seniors Project and the Adult Home Advocacy Project.

Zelhof: I always find it shocking when I learn that landlords are trying to evict people in their 90s, frequently on specious grounds in an effort to get back apartments and raise rents to market rates. MFY has an active practice of defending the elderly in eviction proceedings to ensure they can remain in their homes and age in place with dignity.

In addition, we represent seniors in Medicaid matters, obtain personal care and home health aids for seniors to enable them to remain in their apartments, and advise on a host of other civil legal matters, such as consumer law matters and advance directives.

Our Adult Home Advocacy practice works to reform the institutional practice of housing people with mental illness in large congregate care facilities, where they are frequently subjected to neglect and even abuse.

Editor: We spoke with you a few years ago about the Kinship Caregiver Law Project. How has that work progressed? Would you tell us about a case?

Zelhof: This is a pro bono project where attorneys from major law firms are trained by MFY to represent kinship caregivers in adoption and guardianship proceedings. After the training, the lawyers are assigned cases, and MFY mentors them throughout. We recently represented a woman who was caring for her 15-year-old sister, who has been in this country a couple of years but is undocumented. We filed a guardianship proceeding, seeking not only guardianship but a special finding that would enable the family to seek legal status for the child. The guardianship petition was granted, as was petition for immigration status. The child now has the security to remain in this country under the guardianship of the aunt who has cared for her like a mother, and she will be able in the future to attend college and seek legal employment.

Editor: MFY has an impressive program in mental health. Would you tell us about the Mental Health Law Project?

Zelhof: This project serves people who are participating in various types of outpatient mental health clinics in a variety of cases, from eviction prevention to child support to consumer law problems. By addressing civil legal problems, we ensure that people with mental disabilities do not end up homeless or back in hospitals, thereby saving the public hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. We also have a medical-legal partnership with each of the psychiatric wards of the 11 hospitals of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, where we work with clinical staff to address legal issues that impede safe discharge planning.

Editor: I understand many pro bono attorneys work in the MHLP as guardians ad litem . Can you describe how this process works?

Zelhof: MFY represents very vulnerable populations. Many of our clients are elderly, isolated and/or live with physical or mental illnesses. In our representation, we try to engage clients in the process and provide as much autonomy as possible, but sometimes the client, by dint of age or illness, is not able to fully participate in the litigation. In those cases, we move under New York's CPLR section 1201 to appoint a guardian ad litem .

The guardian ad litem is technically an officer of the court, but he or she works with MFY and the client to ensure that all steps are taken for a successful defense or prosecution of the case. Many attorneys from private firms enjoy this as pro bono work, because it takes them out of the virtual library and into the real world. They develop a relationship with a real person who has a compelling problem. They interact with social service agencies to get services necessary to win the case and appear in court, where they interact with opposing counsel and judges.

Editor: MFY is unusual in that it works directly with the underserved populations of New York, rather than acting as a middleman in the pro bono attorney-client relationship. You are really on the front line, as it were.

Zelhof: Much of our work is on the front line, and that's because we have developed expertise in highly technical areas of law such as housing and government benefits. We also train our lawyers in working with clients who have disabilities and have made it a priority to ensure that we have culturally competent staff who speak the languages of our client communities.

Editor: Has voluntarism and/or pro bono fallen off during the recession? Do you see it coming back?

Zelhof: Contributions fell off during the recession, but we're seeing an upward trend now. Pro bono resources also decreased, with firms putting fewer lawyers and resources into pro bono cases, but, again, we're seeing an uptick in this area as well.

Editor: I imagine there are many other opportunities for attorneys looking for pro bono work. What are your greatest needs? In what practice areas in particular?

Zelhof: We have three pro bono projects. One is our Kinship Caregiver Project to assist kinship care families in adoption and guardianship proceedings so the families can make legal decisions in education, health and other matters for the family members for whom they are caring outside the formal foster care system. Our SSI/SSD project assists clients with mental and physical disabilities get federal benefits. The third project helps people overcome obstacles to getting licenses required for certain jobs, such as security guards and home health aides.

With respect to class action or impact litigation, we frequently, although not always, try to co-counsel with law firms who have many more resources than MFY does and can be very helpful during big litigations. Our greatest need? Funding. We've lost government and private grants due to the dive in interest rates, and we are struggling to respond to greater need with fewer resources.

Editor: MFY has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding. Where do you see it five years down the road? Where do you see a growing need in the NYC population?

Zelhof: I'd like to believe that poor and low-income people will have adequate and affordable housing and income in five years. In the absence of that, we will continue to serve this client base to ensure these basic needs are met. Since MFY is very adept in focusing legal resources on emerging legal issues, we are prepared to address them as they arise.

Editor: How can interested attorneys and law firms contact you?

Zelhof: People interested in donating to MFY should contact Dolores Schaefer, MFY's Director of Development, at dschaefer@mfy.org or (212) 417-3731; donations can also be made online at our website, www.mfy.org. Those interested in doing pro bono work should contact Ramonita Cordero, MFY's Pro Bono Coordinator, at rcordero@mfy.org or (212) 417-3774.

Please email the interviewee at jzelhof@mfy.org with questions about this interview.