About the Series
Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of an upcoming conference on October 17, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.
This week, we are delighted to share our interview with the Tashi Lhewa and Young Lee of The Legal Aid Society.
JH: How did you guys come to work at LAS, what brought you here, what’d you do before?
TL: My name is Tashi Lhewa, I’m a consumer staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, and I’ve been here for four years. After Sandy hit, I was temporarily a Sandy attorney,
YL: I’m Young Lee and I’ve been with LAS since 2006. I originally was a housing attorney, doing landlord-tenant work in the Bronx. After Sandy happened, watching the news and seeing what I could do as a lawyer, I was very interested in getting involved, so I applied to for the Sandy attorney position.
JH: Does the housing experience help with Build it Back and housing issues from Sandy?
YL: It definitely helps because a lot of Sandy clients are renters. The Build it Back program has more to do with homeowners and, luckily, LAS has a very good foreclosure unit, so I can go around the office and ask questions about mortgage forbearance and other homeowner issues.
TL: One of the main strengths of LAS is the diversity and the size of our practices. After Sandy hit we provided comprehensive legal assistance – consumer, foreclosure, benefits, family law – whatever help people needed, we provided. That was something we took pride in doing.
We also have great partnerships with large firms through our pro bono unit. Marlene Halpern, Emily Borman, Lou Sartori – our pro bono unit here – did great work, especially around the DHS Interim Placement Program hotel lawsuit. In that case, we worked with Weil Gosthal to sue the City to prevent them from evicting those who lost their permanent housing from the hotels. The City’s position was “they can go through the shelter system.” The problem is we’ve seen people do that and get denied. The suit is ongoing; we were able to successfully get a preliminary injunction at the end of May.
On the topic of partnerships, I want to mention one more thing: our work with community organizations was incredibly helpful. Organizations such as Market Community Corporation out in Far Rockaway – they were right there. We were able to build on our relationships with them to get to the clients and victims who needed help.
YL: Those relationships were especially helpful in the immediate aftermath. The Robin Hood Foundation funded a Mobile Justice Unit – a giant RV. With the Mobile Justice Unit we were able to get to Far Rockaway and provide a lot of assistance. In the beginning, Tashi was going out there all the time. The people out there couldn’t get anywhere else. Luckily, we were able to go out there and do intake and help as many people as we could.
TL: It was huge; being there where we were needed, instead of telling people to come see us. We had workshops; we had clinics in all the affected neighborhoods — Coney Island, Far Rockaway. The key thing in the immediate aftermath and what was heartening was we had Legal Aid attorneys from various practices and offices all donating their own time to go out and do intake.
YL: And this was while our main office at 199 Water was flooded, so there was a bit of crisis mode internally, but even then we were able to do stuff, which was incredible. That had a lot to do with our leadership and the strength of our employees, and the fact that a lot of our members are from these neighborhoods.
JH: What do you think are the lessons that should be learned form Sandy and the response? What was most challenging; where weren’t we able to provide as you would have liked?
YL: One thing that I don’t think almost any of the legal services community was prepared for was the breadth of the storm. Taking the discrete example of homeowners, it would have been great to do workshops and flyer the flood zones with legal information such as “always make sure your contractor is licensed” – all the different problems really could fit on one page.
TL: Having relationships with other entities and agencies is key. I think of all the problems with FEMA and the various agencies – in the immediate aftermath, when the need is the greatest and you want to assist people — those relationships needed to already be in place.
YL: Frankly, we had enough people to deploy on the ground between us and the pro bono lawyers, but they would get there and then have nothing to do. They would still be helpful, but there were logistic and infrastructure issues. Thinking about what happens when phone lines go down, having a certain amount of PDAs, iPads, maps, etc. Internal logistics is crucial in disaster situations.
JH: 8-10 months later, what are the big issues that you still see people facing?
YL: There are still homeowners battling insurance companies. Many homeowners who don’t think they’ve gotten the insurance relief they’re entitled to.. For example, they got insurance money, but the contractor isn’t doing a good job, or the contractor asks for more money. Seeing what’s covered and what’s not covered. And then the people who are in flood zone areas, in which the flood zone elevation requirements have changed – we get a lot of questions on that, particularly regarding Build it Back.
On the renters’ side, I’m concerned about the bigger-picture potential loss of low-income housing in these areas, and whether or not it’s going to be replaced. The people who got displaced form these low-income neighborhoods – they are pretty much going to be renters and for many people these places have been their homes their entire lives.
TL: Especially with our renter clients who are the lowest low-income people. They were already in a precarious situation prior to Sandy and now you have someone who is homeless and I think the City and other agencies really need to not just say “here’s your voucher, go find a place.”
YL: The voucher is only two years, which is really not that long to get back on your feet.
TL: And the fact that they have a voucher is no guarantee that they’ll find something that’s affordable. With the hotel populations – they’re trying to get them out as fast as possible, and the people are looking, but they can’t find a place.
YL: Unfortunately for that client population, it is frankly true that as people leave, the most capable leave first. The people who need the most help are going to take longer to find a place, and those are the people about whom the City says, “we’ve finally done a good enough job, we don’t have to help these people.” But those are the people who need the most help! Some have undiagnosed mental issues, some are physically disabled, some are just not that sophisticated clients — but for some reason the City can’t seem to bother with them.
And that attitude worries me for the rebuild. If they’re taking that sort of attitude towards these individual, actual people that they can see and hear, then they’re obviously not going to be thinking about these people in the big picture.
JH: On these issues and going forward, how can law students be effective volunteers and advocates?
TL: At this stage, one thing that’s going to be really important is outreach: education on Sandy issues and future preparation. We’ve had two storms in two years; I think it’s really important to go out to the communities at risk, do outreach and hold educational information sessions.
YL: I think law students could really help with education on insurance in general. Even the sophisticated layperson will have difficulty trying to figure out what the policies say. With a certain amount of training, law students can absorb this information and go out to communities and educate the homeowner population in lay language on these issues.
As far as advocacy purposes, there are definitely still certain instances where law students can be direct advocates. Let’s say with public assistance and public benefits and welfare; dealing with welfare centers. You don’t have to be a lawyer to represent these people at Fair Hearings.
JH: Same question for pro bono attorneys. How can they be helpful?
YL: Weil Gotshal was great – they took every FEMA appeal case that came through because at the beginning it was just Tashi and he couldn’t do all of them. Weil took tons of them.
TL: They made a commitment that all of their associates would take one case.
YL: What was great about Weil was they didn’t base it solely out of New York. If they couldn’t find a New York associate, they’d send it to another office. That was a good thing about FEMA appeals – you could do it remotely.
TL: Speaking generally, I think that pro bono attorneys are a great resource. We look for people that have at least background training and basic understandings of legal procedure and due process – that’s crucial for most things, even with administrative appeals.
YL: Now it’s a lot of insurance issues. Mostly we are working with pro bono attorneys who are not necessarily saying they’ll litigate against insurance companies, but at least advocate on behalf of our clients. There is value from the insurance company seeing a law firm’s letterhead.
The reason that pro bono attorneys are especially helpful in these cases is there’s a certain amount of training and esoteric knowledge you need for them. Also, having a less emotional perspective. A lot of clients can do the basics and document everything, but then there’s an issue of sometimes a client is just too close to it. This is their home, they get emotional and its better to just have a second pair of eyes looking over something.
JH: Where do you hope to go from here with Sandy and future disaster relief?
YL: The biggest thing is to continue helping the people who were directly affected. My worry about that is that there are problems out there that we don’t even know about; so trying to identify them.
Also, there are issues with a lot of people in Queens who live in illegal apartments, basement apartments, apartments that weren’t up to code – a lot of those people had a difficult time getting help because they couldn’t get proof of their residence. How we can better help those people is something I want to think about for future storms.
Another concern is monitoring the Build it Back program and making sure all of this federal money is spent in a way that’s not just going to favor business interests. The program is specific to homeowners, but I think they’re using a lot of the money to help business interests. We want to make sure that at least some of that money goes to the actual client population — especially the low-income and most vulnerable New Yorkers.
We’ve done a lot of internal thinking as well – making sure that we’re prepared for the next storm. Looking at how we’re going to mobilize internally; having an action plan with clear, written guidelines. Sandy was somewhat ad hoc.
And then looking externally, trying to advocate with politicians and legislators to pass better laws on things like mortgage forbearance. And then educating the public would be another big part. Educating people about insurance and legal preparation for disasters. People know that they should have a certain amount of bottled water in their house, food, etc.; we need to educate them in the same way about legal prep. For example, having a working camera with a battery to take pictures of damaged property in case you have to throw it out.
TL: I agree with everything that Young said. Another key is transparency. Encourage transparency with all the parties that are involved: Federal agencies, state, local. I think that’s key and something that was really missing. Intentional or not there were huge issues with transparency, which caused a lot of problems for people looking for assistance.