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 Jennifer Ching of Legal Services NYC.


Jennifer Ching

JH: How did you come to work at Legal Services NYC?

JC: I came to Legal Services NYC in 2010. I had been working as a litigator and then in policy, and really missed being in a community law setting. I also really wanted to work in direct support of advocates—one of the things I liked best about working at a law firm, even, was developing the work of younger attorneys.

JH: And before that what were you doing; what is your background?

JC: I have a background working in civil rights, private practice, immigrants’ rights, and in financial justice. I’m a former community organizer and I’ve loved working with and supporting different communities all my life.

JH: In terms of the communities that QLS typically serves, what were the effects of Sandy and what specific legal services did people need?

JC: We have found a range of evolving legal needs since Sandy. In the initial months, we were focused on providing immediate disaster aid and support. Folks needed necessities—access to food, income security, shelter. The impact of Sandy in Queens was really far-reaching and very devastating. Throughout the City, but particularly in the Rockaways, the storm struck disproportionately at some of our lowest-income communities. The Rockaways, for example, is home to a substantial percentage of New York’s public, subsidized, supportive, and senior housing. So it poses a lot of challenges for disaster-related resiliency; this is a community that had already faced a lot of challenges with respect to Irene evacuations. The storm also struck at a critical corridor of 1-4 family housing throughout Southeast Queens, including areas that flooded or had sewage backup because they are in low-lying neighborhoods.

And, of course, there are a lot of Queens residents who were impacted because they’re low-income workers in industries that closed or laid them off because of transportation or lost profits—these include drivers, home health aides, retail workers, construction workers, and restaurant workers – so it was really felt throughout the entire borough.

Legal needs have evolved since the storm. We’ve seen everything—crises related to needs arising from damaged and lost property, increased evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence-related needs, and long-term employment and unemployment issues.

JH: What were the common legal needs of Queens residents?

JC: When a low-income community is struck by disaster, there are immediate legal needs and a very short window of time to address them properly, which is why I think the emergency response from a legal perspective is really critical. We learned a lot of lessons from Sandy.

First and foremost is shelter and income security – making sure that people have access to ongoing income streams, whether it’s their disability payments or SNAP (food stamps), and making sure they are in safe shelter. Shelter is always the million-dollar question in New York City.

Disasters exacerbate the incredible stresses in individuals’ lives, so the attendant legal needs quickly emerge and involve issues ranging from family and domestic violence to mental health needs to caring for a vulnerable person in the household. There are also great disparities in New Yorkers’ immigration status: many wholly undocumented or mixed-status households felt they were unable, and in many cases were unable, to access many types of aid, were shut out from disaster centers, etc. There is a growing underclass of individuals who are unable to access aid.

JH: Were there a lot of illegal renters and subletters? Who was that was an issue for?

JC: Yes, that’s a huge issue in Queens. A significant percentage of the heavily damaged housing stock was 1-4 family homes; many of these are owned by older families or families of limited means that are unable to afford any repairs and need substantial assistance. In the Rockaways in particular, Sandy struck at neighborhoods that were already among those facing a lot of mortgage distress and foreclosure.

If they’re in foreclosure, homeowners are unable to qualify for a lot of aid programs, so people get stuck in these double binds. Many 1-4 family homes are owned by people who don’t live there – it’s unregulated rental housing – and can’t afford to pay for the repairs, so now they’re just sitting foul.

And you had renters who were unable to qualify for disaster aid because they were in these quote-unquote illegal basement apartments or had other issues.

JH: What do you think are some of the big successes that both QLS and the legal community at large have had post-Sandy?

JC: I would talk about the successes through the lens of co-operative action. I think that one of the great things that came about after the storm was the immediacy and effectiveness of cooperative action between and amongst all of the nonprofit legal services providers as well as the private bar. Within days we were able to start structuring long-term clinics that provided direct legal services to thousands of individuals throughout the city.

It was an interesting combination of political movements and legal services providers who provided knowledge and training, pro bono resources, and manpower. I think some of the successes we had were structural in terms of how the disaster response formed: we quickly advocated for access to disaster sites, and we advocated creating disaster sites – particularly in lower-income communities of color where the federal disaster program had not yet reached and which were not part of the initial priority response.

I also think about policies, how aid was disseminated, and how to make it more accessible and fair. Again, these are all ongoing challenges, but we’ve had some successes along the way. Within days after the storm QLS was on the phone with all of the big banks, with HUD, trying to figure out how to keep homeowners from facing the threat of immediate foreclosure, and we put into place much better policies than had been implemented in Katrina – although from an advocate’s perspective they need to be stronger still, so again that’s an ongoing challenge.

We worked immediately to ensure that people would not be defaulted in various legal proceedings such as housing and civil proceedings, federal administrative proceedings, and HRA re-certifications. It’s about making sure that none of those doors close because one lost check can have devastating consequences for people.

In terms of overall successes, I think the work that we’ve all done in the past 10 months has exposed great deficiencies both in how disaster aid is conceived of and disseminated, and in its accessibility. So I think that there are a lot more challenges to come.

JH: For the legal aid community generally – what could we have been done better? What are some ways the community will be better able to respond if it happens again?

JC: I don’t think of failures, but rather that we’ve gone through a unique experience – worst storm of the century – and unfortunately it seems likely we’ll go through something similar again. So, I think having some sense of infrastructure and institutional memory is really important. I think of the things we were able to put together, like Pro Bono Net’s FEMAAppeals.org, and the manual we created to train hundreds of pro bono volunteers, that could become the basis of future information dissemination so that people have a landscape for legal rights post-disaster. Those sorts of things I think will be key.

What remains are the longer-term legal challenges and policy issues that inevitably arise out of a storm: insurance issues, access to FEMA, program restrictions. We’re only at the very beginning of post-storm community recovery; Legal Services is a member of the Citywide Coalition that has been active in calling for transparency and greater inclusion in the community recovery. We’ve weighed in on both the City’s and State’s action plans.

JH: What are the big challenges and issues that you are still seeing 9-10 months out? Or that we’ll see going forward?

JC: I think the big issues are not surprising. It’s incredibly costly to own a home in New York City, and it’s incredibly costly to pay for the repairs necessary to have a home that is resilient for future storms. And the vast majority of people we’ve seen have only just begun to make headway in their competing and very complex claims for insurance and government aid.

When you have these processes that take so long, what you experience within the community is just a further threat and loss to the neighborhood fabric. So, you look at the long-term impact of the failure to move towards economic recovery – the permanent impact on home values and people’s ability to live in safe and healthy communities.

JH: Do you have hope for the Build it Back program to help with these issues?

JC: I think the City has, to its credit, done a very laudable job in trying to move aid quickly and directly to affected communities as the money comes through the federal process. Build it Back – like Rapid Repair – has issues, and one concern we have is that homeowners who are in foreclosure aren’t eligible for Build it Back. If you didn’t qualify for FEMA or your FEMA is still pending, then you’re not able to access all of these other programs. It’s this cascading kind of impact; you’re sort of held in limbo.

I believe one of the biggest challenges is that the City, the State, and the Federal Government have significantly undercounted the number of low-income people affected by the storm. Our job as advocates has been to really make that front and center – to make policymakers understand that, at the end of the day, relying on things like who registered at a disaster relief center and got a FEMA number is not the end-all-and-be-all marker of who was impacted by the storm.

At some point there needs to be a true assessment of need because there is a great disparity between what we read in official documents about who was impacted versus what we see in our offices and know about the communities that were already struggling before. It just doesn’t match.

JH: What do you think are the most important and effective ways for pro bonos to help going forward – both for specific cases and more generally in terms of policy issues?

JC: One of the big challenges that we have to confront is the issue of the pro bono bar not being able to take on long-term insurance and finance-related cases. In a world where financial concerns are increasingly central, low-income people have significant financial needs as well. Their problems are not isolated just to a simple eviction or a domestic violence incident. At the end of the day, low-income people have debt and owe funds to financial institutions, and it’s well-documented that these institutions often treat them very unfairly. These cases are complex and not within the usual purview and training of a legal services attorney – although that is something that the legal services world is trying to change. It’s something where I feel like some engagement from the bar is necessary.

JH: Same question for law students – how can they be used?

JC: We’ve had great experiences with law students. In January, we had about 75 law students canvass and give out legal assessment surveys. We collected 300 responses that were instrumental in carving out how we developed the legal advocacy and how we targeted our limited resources.

In March, we hosted dozens of spring break volunteers from around the country to do intake, client interviews, case development, etc. Law students in the area have interned and been really helpful. And the law schools themselves have been incredibly generous; in many instances they’ve taken on leadership roles themselves.

I think that many infrastructure relationships were created as a result both of the storm and Pro Bono Net’s coordination. They’ll stay in place because storm recovery is a years-long process, and hopefully they will endure and be instantly activated the next time around.

JH: What do you think were the most important lessons, in terms of Sandy and future storm preparation, and how would you want to apply them going forward?

JC: I have to reserve my opinion for long-term advocacy because we’re really just on the tip of that, but I think the most important lesson that I learned is how critical the first few weeks are to any disaster response. We took far too long. A couple of weeks to set up long-term onsite clinics is amazing, but those first two weeks are really key: that’s when people are trying to get their lives back together; that’s when they make critical decisions about going to FEMA or staying with a cousin in New Jersey. You lose people. The community fabric is immediately disrupted. As an example, it wasn’t until almost two weeks after the storm that FEMA opened a site in the Far Rockaways, which is the lowest-income community you’ve heard me talking about. We had to advocate for them to open it. That community really lost an opportunity from the get-go.

The immediate engagement to get people to register for disaster aid and to start thinking about and documenting their needs is incredibly important.