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Podcast: Reducing Evictions in Newark, NJ with Khabirah Myers

Posted on January 31, 2020


Khabirah Myers GovLove

Khabirah Myers

Khabirah Myers
Coordinator, Office of Tenant Legal Services
City of Newark, New Jersey
Bio


Equitable growth and reducing displacement. Khabirah Myers, the Coordinator for the Office of Tenant Legal Services, joined the podcast to talk about her work aiding renters in the City of Newark.The City created an Office where residents facing eviction can turn for resources and even legal representation. Khabirah talked about the eviction issue in Newark, how her Office is working to combat the problem, and how reducing evictions is part of an equitable growth strategy.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

Mayor Baraka appoints Khabirah Myers as Coordinator of the Office of Tenant Legal Services

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Free legal help for low income at-risk tenants facing eviction now in operation and taking applications

Free legal help for low-income Newarkers facing eviction

Newark City Officials Offer Free Legal Assistance for Tenants Facing Eviction

Renters getting evicted from their apartments in N.J. city will now get free lawyers


Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

Hi Ya’ll. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government, brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host and we have a great episode for you today. We are going to dive a little deep on combating evictions in New Jersey. And for you listeners at home as a reminder, if you want to support GovLove, you should become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Khabirah Myers is the Coordinator for the Office of Tenant Legal Services for the City of Newark, New Jersey. She was born and raised in Newark and joined the city in April 2019. So not quite a year ago. Prior to taking on that role she was an Associate Attorney at Iandoli and Edens LLC, a private law practice. There her work focused on achieving social justice and equity through litigation and public policy. The Office of Tenant Legal Services is responsible for Newark’s efforts to protect low income renters from eviction. So an issue that a lot of our cities are facing and I think we’re starting to learn more about and so I’m excited to talk with Khabirah about the work she’s doing. So with that, Khabirah, welcome to GovLove. Thank you so much for joining us.

Khabirah Myers

Thank you, Ben. I’m excited to be here. Thank you so much. Good morning.

Ben Kittelson

Morning. Yeah. [Laughter] I’ve got some coffee still, as we talk so much earlier than usual. [Laughter]

Khabirah Myers

Yeah, yeah, no, coffee is great. That’s right. Daily ritual, drinking coffee. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Okay, so we have a tradition on GovLove to get to know our guests a little better through a lightning round. So my first question for you. What was the first concert you went to?

Khabirah Myers

Oh, my goodness. Wow. You are taking me back [laughter]. So the first concert that I can recall attending was about 20 years ago with my mother. We went to see Byleaf Keita at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This you know if you’re familiar celly cases and Applebee artists from the country of Mali, and I’m a huge Applebee fan, Salif Keita, Femi Kuti, Fela Kuti. So, from my recollection, that was probably the first live concert that I attended. And it was it was fantastic. Right here in Newark. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. I’m gonna have to look up that artists and add to my playlist. [Laughter]

Khabirah Myers

Yeah. And be careful because, you know, you can’t sit down when you listen to his music, you just have to get up and dance or bob your head or something. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

So my second question for you, where do you go for inspiration?

Khabirah Myers

Ah, so I’m a runner. And you know, the reason why I run is because I find it to be very therapeutic. And it’s a very big stress reliever. It reduces a lot of stress and I find it to be very meditative as well. And I always run outside on the street, you know, I really, you know, do it, you know, on a machine or whatever a treadmill. So, you know, I find that I’m able to, you know, iron out a lot of internal conflicts and questions that I might have in my mind. When I go running, I make sure that I, you know, I go for a good you know, 45 minutes to you know, over an hour because, you know, oftentimes I have a lot of, you know, issues that I want to flesh out in my head. So yeah, so usually, you know, out in the open, you know, in nature running on the street, is where I get my inspiration and my ideas to keep moving forward.

Ben Kittelson

Very nice. Yeah, I’m the same way. I run and it’s a way to like, process… it like it’s a good way to like turn your brain off and work through things. [Laughter]Yeah.

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s fantastic. I highly recommend it. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Ben Kittelson Totally, really. So my next next question for you, what vegetable did you hate as a kid that you eat now?

Khabirah Myers

Probably brussel sprouts. I did not like brussel sprouts as a kid. I just said I had this pungent taste and now I love that pungent taste about brussel sprouts. You know, I’m a vegetarian, so I’m all about you know, fresh vegetables and especially green vegetables. So I love brussel sprouts now when I used to hate it as a kid. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, no, definitely agree with that. Also, I don’t know if it was just like a change in trends or something but roasting vegetables in the oven just we just didn’t do as a kid and now like, that’s like the only way I eat most of my lunch. [Laughter]

Khabirah Myers

Yeah, I think that it somehow retains the vitamins if you instead of, you know, frying or boiling. Yeah, like I think that that’s maybe a way of retaining those, you know, important vitamins and nutrients, you know, plus it tastes good too. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Alright, so my last question for you. What book are you currently reading?

Khabirah Myers

Oh, wow. So I love to read. I’m actually simultaneously reading two books. I’m a big fan of Bell Hooks. She’s a African American feminist writer, social commentator, and the book that I’m currently reading by her is The Will to Change. And I’m also reading this book called Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which is a commentary on evictions throughout the country. And it’s amazing I love, you know, non-fiction, social commentary type work. So, so yeah, those are two books that I’m reading at the same time.

Ben Kittelson

Well, that Matthew Desmond book is probably right in line with the work you’re doing for Newark.

Khabirah Myers

Yes, it really, really is. And I’ve been meaning to read his book for a long time, you know, and now I finally have the opportunity to do so and what’s interesting was that I actually had the opportunity to hear him speak. I was a guest panelist at a Legal Services of New Jersey housing conference, maybe like a month or so ago. And he was their keynote speaker and I almost fell out of my chair. [Laughter] He’s well respected, you know, and the whole tenant advocacy arena, and to have him speak and talk about his work and in preventing evictions. I mean, it was just it really resonated with me. You know, his work has always resonated with me. So I finally brought myself around to reading his book. And, you know, like you said, it, it speaks about the exact type of work that I do. So it’s nice to you know, have a sort of literary comrade, you know, out there that I could, you know, always turn to. So yeah, he’s great and the book is great as well.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. For, for our listeners, if you haven’t read Evicted by Matthew Desmond, that’s, that’s definitely one you should put on your list.

Khabirah Myers

Yeah, he’s great. You know, he has a, he works with the Princeton University. He has what he calls an evictions lab. I hope I’m not mispronouncing it… in Princeton, here in New Jersey. So that might be a good way to reach out to him as well. But I found him to be very approachable. Yeah.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. It’s very cool how he’s taking, you know, this very gripping personal like, i can’t remember. I don’t know if it’s sociology or anthropology kind of like writing and now he’s doing like a more of a policy driven effort through that evicted lab. But anyway, so I’m sure we could talk. We could do a whole book book review of that. [Laughter] But anyways, one thing I always like to ask all my guests and for you, I think it’ll be interesting to hear your story on this is, how did you end up working in local government? I think it’s fascinating like how people end up in this field and there’s it shows that there’s no one way to doing like cool work at the local level. So for you, what was your path to this role at the City of Newark?

Khabirah Myers

So my mom actually worked in government and my mom, I have to credit her for being a huge inspiration for me in terms of, you know, keeping connected with my community and being an advocate for my community, especially for the disenfranchised. So kudos to my mom. And so it was through, you know, inspiration like that that I decided to go to law school for the very purpose of being a public interest attorney. And if you’re familiar with public interest attorneys, we work in the public interest sector, the nonprofit sector and the government sector. And after I finished my first year in law school, my first legal internship was actually with the City of Newark’s law department. So, you know, government and public interest was the path that I was going, going down anyway. So So yeah, and also, you know, because my heart has always been with the City of Newark. It is where I was wanting to raise, it’s where I’ve gotten a lot of my inspiration. You know, and I feel that you look you know, I, I, I love my job, you know, I love having, you know, a law degree, being, you know, able to practice law, but at the same time, I want to be able to use it to do some good, you know, to give back to, to my community because, you know, my motto was there, but for the grace of God go I. I didn’t get here, you know, by myself or in a vacuum, other people helped me out. So I feel like, you know, I would like to help people out as well. You know, and, you know, so with that being the case, it was an absolute honor when I was asked to, to coordinate the office that I now coordinate the city’s Office of Tenant Services. And I should also mention, excuse me that this is not the first time that I’ve worked as an attorney for the City of Newark. I worked for a year, a little bit over a year as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the city. I believe it was 2017 to 2018, or could be off by a year could have been 2016 – 2017. And in that capacity, I was asked by Corporation council to assist in the legislation to create the Office of Tenant Legal Services. So I actually co-wrote that ordinance that created this office. So, you know, and, you know, a tenant advocacy has always been my passion. As you probably know, I was a, you know, Legal Services lawyer for more than seven years, advocating on behalf of tenants of low income of Essex County. So when I got the opportunity to co-write the ordinance, and then run the office, you know, it was like a no brainer. [Laughter]  It was a dream come true for me. So for me, it’s not… this is not a nine to five, you know, working government has never been a nine to five. For me, it’s a life mission, especially this type of work. This is a life mission for me, and it’s social justice work. So what better way to do it you know, you know, then than to do it in the capacity that I am doing that work now?

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Yeah. Well said and so for us, you have a very unique perspective that on kind of the creation of this office, so maybe let’s, let’s start a little broader. Can you maybe talk about your work in like tenant services? And what kind of the problem you saw and how that led to the creation of this office?

Khabirah Myers

Yeah. So if you look at the statistics, you know, the eviction statistics in the County of Essex, which is where the City of Newark is seated, it’s pretty tremendous. And, you know, just incredible and devastating. So, you know, recent data from the County of Essex’s chalkward administrator’s office indicated that on, on average, they’re about 38,000 evictions filed annually in the County of Essex and the city of Newark has the lion’s share of those eviction filings. That is, you know, the data suggests, or the data indicates that there are about 20,000 eviction actions filed annually against North tenants. So if you do the math on that, that’s more than 50% of those eviction filings in the city. I’m sorry, in the County of Essex being filed against North Pinot, and that’s an issue. And then on any given day, nine out of 10 of Essex County tenants are unrepresented by an attorney. And data…you know, there’s multiple studies that have been done to show that a tenant who’s represented by Counsel has a much stronger chance of keeping her housing as opposed to an unrepresented tenant. And this is something that Mayor Baraka has been on the pulse of, you know, this type of data, this type of, you know, information. Umm, you know, because housing displacement is expensive, is expensive for everyone. It’s expensive for the taxpayer. It’s expensive for the person who’s lost their housing. So even if you come from, you know, take out the social justice fees and just look at the economic piece. It’s better to keep tenants in their homes as opposed to evicting them and potentially causing their homelessness. So this is something that Mayor Baraka has been on the pulse of, you know, and it’s a part of his whole equitable growth plan for the City of Newark. It’s a part of his whole, you know, his intention to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table, that everyone can benefit every, you know, resident of the City of Newark can benefit from the city’s economic boom, because the city is seeing an economic boom. You know, and it’s getting a lot of national attention in a good way. So the mayor wants to ensure that everybody benefits from that and you know, there’s more gain locally than there are, you know, losses.

Ben Kittelson

A lot of what you said like I feel like I remember thinking about and struggling with when I was at the City of Durham or even in Guilford County in North Carolina, which where Greensboro is, and like when, when, actually Matthew Desmond’s book came out, I remember, you know, people struggling with and thinking about, like, how do we help these residents that are dealing with eviction, like, this is such a, you know, such a huge issue everywhere, especially in, you know, you know, cities and especially cities that are growing quickly, like like Newark, or Durham, or any of these, you know, cities that are booming, and, but like, how do you go about helping and I remember feeling, not not helpless, but like, you know, as a budget analyst, there wasn’t much policy that I was going to be writing, but and there’s a but for you, I guess, you saw this problem. The the mayor is interested, what is the like, what’s the next step of going here’s like what we think could actually help because, obviously, like, even if you as one person probably can’t represent all 20,000 people facing eviction in a year, that’s unrealistic. So like, what what what did the city did and you guys decide to do that you think can have an impact on this problem?

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely. So we have a proactive stance, you know, we look at everything from a proactive worldview, you know. The OTLS’s goal is to prevent evictions. And that’s why we not only assist tenants who have, you know, filings, you know, actions already filed against them, but we assist tenants who are facing the threat of eviction. So, you know, the minute a tenant comes to us and says, look, you know, they’re, the landlord didn’t file anything against me, but they’re threatening to put me on the street in two weeks, we can jump right in, and, you know, and advise them of what their legal rights are. So one of the things that we’re gearing up to do is engage in tenants’ rights seminars, and, you know, engage in what’s called People’s Assembly Events. So, the People’s Assembly is an endeavor that was launched by the mayor about a year ago to where city employees actually go out into the community, and talk about the stuff that they as city employees do on behalf of the City, and then engage with community members. It’s a way of, of giving the residents of Newark a seat at the table. And it goes to the mayor’s intention to let everybody know that their voices should be heard, that the mayor wants to hear their voices. So the OTLS intends to engage in these people assemblies events by going into every ward, because the city has five different wards, and engaging with the community, talking about the office, what it does, actually setting up appointments with tenants who have concerns to come and see us, see our attorneys. And also just briefly talking about what their rights are, and then answering questions as well, you know, from tenants, you know, of the city of Newark. So, so that’s one thing that we intend to do. You might be aware that we’re working with Bloomberg Philanthropies, What Works Cities, as well as the Behavioral Insights Team. We’ve been collaborating on interventions. So we actually have two interventions that we intend to launch in collaboration with the Behavioral Insights Team very, very soon. And one of those interventions is to set up satellite offices. So right now, the OTLS has one central office, which is in Newark City Hall. But we intend through our collaboration with Behavioral Insights Team to set up two satellite offices in…. one in each of the wards that are facing the highest rate of eviction and we hope that by doing that to evaluate whether having satellite offices will help to reduce evictions, by creating an avenue for folks who have limited mobility to actually engage with our office. You know, we hope to test whether or not you know, the fact that that we’re located in one office prevents, you know, tenants, other members and other tenants in the community from getting access to our services because of, you know, lack of transportation. So basically, we want to meet people where they’re where they’re at. Alright, so that’s the satellite office intervention. And then the second intervention that Behavioral Insights Team and the OTLS is collaborating on is the sending out of postcards. So we intend to send out a number of postcards to not every tenant because again, this is a you know, this is an evaluation. This is a test to see what works in terms of What Works Cities. [Laughter] and on those postcards, we intend to, to every tenant that gets a postcard, umm the tenants that get the postcards will be tenants who have pending actions in landlord tenant court. All right. And recent data has indicated that, recent data have indicated that there’s a huge service of process issue in this, in the County of Essex, where a lot of tenants the data indicate, are not getting served with the eviction complaint. All right. And my… yeah, my belief has always been that tenants are not necessarily not showing up in court, because they just don’t care. But because they don’t even know that something is pending. And I’ve had a number of tenants who have come to my office to the OTLS and have advised us that they didn’t even know that something was filed against them in landlord tenant court until they got the lockout notice.

Ben Kittelson

Oh wow.

Khabirah Myers

That’s the problem. And it’s been going on for a while, you know, again, you know, I’ve been working in the landlord tenant business for years in the County of Essex. And as far back as I can remember, this has been an issue. So by sending out postcards, we hope to test whether or not by you know, whether or not that Service of Process theory that I have actually contributes to the rate of evictions in the in the city of Newark. So, you know, we hope to see whether or not okay, you’re you’re actually you are getting notified of your court day. Now, let’s see if you actually show up in court. You know, because my belief is that when people get notice, when tenants get notice about the hearings, they will show up in court, right, and by showing up in court, you’re less likely to get evicted. That’s my theory. So that that collaboration that second intervention, is here to test that theory. We also intend to put on that postcard information about the OTLS because we intend, we hope to notify tenants about our existence and our services as well. [Audio not clear]

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that’s so interesting. I didn’t realize or I guess, I mean, how would you know that? Like, I didn’t realize, like, how many people just didn’t know that they were facing eviction charges, or….

Khabirah Myers

Yeah, it’s a lot. You would be surprised. Yeah, it’s a lot.

Ben Kittelson

Well, and obviously, there’s a huge, like education component of, of your work. And so what are things that like, you know, normal, like residents that aren’t thinking about this world are not familiar with their rights as tenants, like what are things that they’re not aware of that like you that… I know it probably varies state to state, obviously. But for you, you guys, what do you what are you teaching residents that they have the right to do, or they have the right to as part of like facing an eviction or something?

Khabirah Myers

So a number of residents that have come into our office and talk about how their landlords are threatening to change the locks or turn off their utilities, you know, to engage in what’s called self-help. And so one of the things, a big thing that we tell residents about and by default we educate landlords about as well because we, we send out you know, when, when, you know our constituents come and tell us that we send out a generic legal evictions in the State of New Jersey letter. And that’s basically to inform tenants that look, a landlord can only legally evict the tenant by filing an eviction action against him or her, all right. And only after that landlord is successful in getting a judgment for possession against that tenant, and in turn following the process of getting a lockout, notice that can only be effectuated and activated by a court appointed constable. That’s the only legal way to evict a tenant. And we you know, we verbally inform tenants of that, we verbally inform landlords of that because you would be surprised that how many landlords think that they can just you know threaten the tenant and get them out that way and how many tenants believe that that’s, that’s the way that they can be forced to move. So that’s a huge educational component that, that we engage in. You know, and again, it’s, it’s geared towards tenants. But by default, landlords are learning about that as well. And, you know, because, you know, I’m an attorney, you know, I’m a big, you know, advocate of not just putting something on a piece of paper and assuming that people are going to understand, you know, how to use that, that information on and or that advice, you know, I don’t believe in, you know, giving legal advice on a piece of paper. Because, you know, I’m a big, you know, advocate of ensuring that everyone understands, you know, what, what’s being, you know, suggested, and also there’s no cookie cutter answer to every landlord tenant relationship. There’s no cookie cutter solution to every landlord tenant dispute. There’s nuances in every single dispute. You know, for example, the City of Newark has a, has a rent control ordinance that’s not applicable to every, you know, single rental property. You know, if you’re a landlord who resides, you know, and your property in Newark, and you’ve gotten less than, you know, you’re renting out less than three residential units, then rent control doesn’t apply to you. All right. So, again, there’s nuances there. So that’s something that we always, you know, keep at the forefront when we’re talking about educating the community.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. So if, a resident does come to you and says, you know, I think my landlords trying to evict me and I got your handout like, what do you guys do you do then? I guess what do you do for, do for them? Do you give them legal advice? Do you point them in the direction of a pro bono attorney or is there more than just the education, that if someone comes they can get help from the office?

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely, absolutely. We actually provide direct legal representation in court to tenants who are facing eviction, and or, you know, if they are a subsidized tenant and they’re facing, you know, the termination of their subsidy, we provide direct legal representation for the tenant as well. So it’s not just about giving the tenant information and advice, we actually do the grunt work, we actually do the research, the filing of motions and and, you know, in court and papers in court, and then actually appearing in court and representing the tenant, you know, in front of a judge to assist the tenant in getting the eviction action dismissed.

Ben Kittelson

For because you said like, so often, people facing eviction, just don’t have representation, is just the act of having a representation, like even the playing field enough that now, like, the person that, you know, without representation probably gets evicted, and now they’re not or is it more the process is allowed to play out the way it should? And there’s more back and forth, and and I don’t know, like it’s not always like they’re not going to get evicted, but they….

Khabirah Myers

Right.

Ben Kittelson

they at least have a fighting chance. Does that make sense? [Laughter]

Khabirah Myers

Yes, it does. 100% I think that that’s a very good way to to describe it, you know, when a, when a person, when a tenant has an attorney that’s advocating on their behalf, they have much more of a fighting chance of keeping their, their, their tenancy, than if they went in, went in on their own. Umm you know, and and it’s funny because even though I’m an attorney, I would rather not represent myself if I were facing eviction. And I’m speaking from personal experience, not you know, you know, I was recently I’ve recently had a legal action, like a traffic ticket. And I thought that I could do it on my own right. And then I realized that no, I cannot do this on my own. I can’t get this traffic ticket thrown out on my own because I’m so emotionally attached to this, you know, this legal dispute, and it’s clouding my judgment, it’s clouding my understanding of what’s happening here. Let me go hire myself a lawyer. And that lawyer actually helped me to get it thrown out. And it was because, you know, the lawyer is not so personally involved in the dispute. So they’re able to approach you know, the, the issues, the legal issues with clear eyes, they have a lot more time in their hands. You know, there’s not that, you know, that sort of, you know, emotional attachment to what’s going on. So there’s that piece. And then there’s also just the understanding of the law, the legal piece of it as well. So it’s so important that you know, especially if you are a tenant that doesn’t really know the nuances because you know evict, landlord tenant law is very nuanced. And it can be very complex. And that’s where a person who, who even practice, that’s even for attorneys, it’s that way. And then for the City of Newark in particular, again, because we have this wonderful rent control ordinance, there’s a lot of defenses that can be unearthed on behalf of a, of a tenant to get their eviction action dismissed through an understanding of the laws, the local laws as well as the state laws. So our legal advocates, our attorneys, are actually unable to unearth all levels of multiple defenses on behalf of tenants who might otherwise not know about those defenses. So it’s huge, it’s huge. Having a lawyer actually levels the playing field, and then one of the things I want to mention, frequently tenants, you know who go in pro se and then come to our office and tell us, you know, look, I’ve got this eviction action, landlords procured a judgment for possession. They tell us that they never went before a judge. And they say that they never went before a judge, because the landlord’s lawyer told them that they were going to lose if they went before a judge. And this is, and this is, you know, multiple tenants tell us that and these are very bright, you know, intelligent people. But there’s that intimidation factor. You know, when you’re going by yourself, you don’t have somebody who’s an attorney who understands the law with you to advocate for you. And then your adversary, who’s your landlord does have that person, that legal advocate, that’s incredibly intimidating for anybody, for anybody. So yeah, just to have that support, you know, because oftentimes, just having that support there with you, you can know the law and things of that sort, but not be confident enough to assert the law to assert your rights. Right. So attorneys actually give our constituent tenants that confidence to assert their rights to say, it’s okay to see a judge. It’s your right to see a judge. There is no set back in doing that. Don’t let these people, don’t let your adversary put this fear into you that you’re just you know, you don’t have this right to assert this legal right. You know, it makes you a bad person, you know somehow, you know [laughter] certain stuff like that. So, so yeah, so that’s where we come in.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And so, for so for your office, like, I think I read are there two employees in your office? You and one other. I guess how big is your office? Is it three down?

Khabirah Myers

So we have three direct hires. The OTLS has three direct hires, myself included. We have a paralegal and we also have an administrative assistant, who came on board earlier this month, actually.

Ben Kittelson

Okay. Yeah. And so for like, that’s a small team, like for the three of you for that for your office, like how many residents are you guys like doing representation for in court?

Khabirah Myers

Yes, so we actually, I can tell you how many residents we’ve assisted. We’ve assisted more than 700 residents since the offices’ inception in June. And of those 700 residents…So let me, let me start off by saying this, the OTLS doesn’t turn anybody away. You know, even though we have eligibility criteria, we still somehow try to assist everybody who comes to our office seeking assistance. So even if we’re not able to provide you with the right legal representation, we can give you information to get the services that you’re seeking. So, so in that respect, we actually, you know, assist everybody who comes through our doors in some way, shape or form, not necessarily legally, but sometimes information only if you’re not eligible for legal assistance. So, so yeah, so that’s how, you know we arrived at that number of over 700. And then, you know, and that also comes from the fact that, you know, every household, so every applicant represents a household, and every household has at least one member, right. So we’ve assisted applicants whose households consists of five members, you know, and and six members. So you know a household, every tenant household is a tenant. And so, so yeah, so and of that number, more than 600 have been eligible. So we’ve provided actual direct legal assistance to more than 600 tenants in the City of Newark, and a large percentage of those that we’ve represented or provided assistance to because not everyone has an action in court, right. But of those that have an action in court, I would say the bulk of those we’ve been able to provide the right legal representation to, and if we haven’t been able to get dismissals, we’ve been able to protract the litigation so that the tenant has extra time to stay in their housing to find alternative housing or to find some sort of rental assistance to get the, for example, the non payment action dismissed.

Ben Kittelson

Well, that’s, that’s a ton. That’s a, that’s a huge impact on the community to like, like 700 people that are potentially staying in their homes and not, you know, making your communities more you know, turning over less and making them more solid.

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely.

Ben Kittelson

One thing that like, isn’t lost on me, not done totally, just talk about the Matthew Desmond book, but like he, he referenced a fair amount was, was that like, landlords are obviously a part of this conversation. So like, how much are you guys engaging with landlords? What, because obviously, your first mission is to serve the tenants that are facing eviction, but obviously, but there are landlords on the other side of that. So what kind of role do you guys have with, with engaging with or talking with landlords?

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely. So, as I mentioned earlier, because, you know, for example, when we educate tenants about the no self-help law in the state of New Jersey, that, you know, that whole, you know, premise, we are by default educating landlords, but as you mentioned, our primary job and role is to educate tenants, you know. Those are, you know, those are the ones that, that the office was, those are the constituents that the office was created for. You know, so in that respect, we engage with landlords, quite frequently, quite quite frequently, usually in an adversarial capacity. And oftentimes by engaging with landlords in an adversarial capacity, is they actually understand what the law is right? Because frequently when we appear in court on behalf of tenants, the judge actually, you know, declares what the law is and what rights a landlord has, and what rights a tenant has, alright? So in that adversarial perspective, there’s there’s a lot of engagement with landlords. But I should also mention that the OTLS has been collaborating with the Newark Housing Authority for a while now and the Newark Housing Authority is by far the largest landlord in the City of Newark. So we’ve actually been working with them in a non-adversarial capacity, in the collaborative capacity to help mitigate the evictions of the Newark Housing Authority subsidized tenant, and they’ve been fantastic. Their Executive Director, Victor Cirilo, is a true warrior. He’s, he’s wonderful, and he genuinely cares about the constituents that he serves and it makes it a lot easier, you know, the collaboration a lot easier and, and wonderful. So kudos to Victor Cirilo. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

You mentioned you may have served, you know, 700 people since the creation of the office. Is there kind of plans to or, or and but, you know, the 700 people but the need is obviously far greater other plans to or do you have a vision for how you would scale up the work of the the office and in order to meet the, the need in the community?

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely, absolutely. So I started out talking about how the OTLS seeks to be proactive and comprehensive. So we don’t want to just put a band aid on the solution. We want to, you know, unearth the reason, or put a band aid on the problem. We want to unearth the reason why that problem exists in the first place. You know, we want to get to the root, to the source of why nine out of 10 tenants in the, in the County of Essex go to court unrepresented by counsel. So in the future and I’m hoping in the very near future, the OTLS intends to collaborate with other rights to counsel advocates to push for a civil Gideon ruling. So I don’t know if you are familiar with the Supreme Court case of Gideon versus Wainwright which was rendered in a Supreme Court ruling, in Gideon versus Wainwright, which was rendered in 1963. So we hope for a similar Gideon ruling in the civil context, specifically for defendant tenants facing eviction. So I intend, I intend to have the OTLS collaborate, the city intends to have the OTLS collaborate with other tenant advocates to push for that sort of legislation on the, not just on the local level, but on the national level. Because again, Gideon was the United States Supreme Court ruling. So, you know, we hope to have some sort of ruling like that very, very soon, for indigent tenants facing eviction. So, and then again, we intend to collaborate on other, you know, in other areas with tenant advocates as well, because again, this work, you know, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s all about collaboration and a group effort. So one of the big things that the OTLS does is engage with the community, attending community meetings with different stakeholders who are pushing for similar objectives on behalf of tenants of low income. And that’s something that we intend to do throughout the OTLS’s existence.

Ben Kittelson

One, one thing that, I mean your answer reminded me of is, you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that this is part of the broader Mayor Baraka’s vision for economic, I can’t remember the phrase he used.

Khabirah Myers

Equitable Growth.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, equitable growth and kind of economic development. And, and so like, I guess from your perspective, how do you see this kind of fitting into that broader equitable growth kind of theme and initiative?

Khabirah Myers

Yeah, well, I mean, the statistics show that when a person loses their housing, they tend to lose a number of other things with their housing, which includes jobs. You know, there’s, you know, displacement is holistically devastating. And by keeping tenants in their housing, it’s more likely that they are to keep their jobs and to find, you know, new employment and better employment by having a physical address. You know, data show that oftentimes if a tenant, you know who’s or a person who submits their resume for a job, doesn’t include a physical home address, that’s the turnoff to some employers, you know, so it’s huge, it’s huge. And it’s, you know, it’s traumatic for a person not to have a home. It’s incredibly traumatic, you know, especially for children or, you know, especially for the vulnerable you know, so that goes into the mayor’s vision of equitable growth, like everyone deserves, again, to have a seat at the table and to benefit from the City of Newark’s growth, and it should be equitable. It shouldn’t be just, you know, for folks who are already doing okay financially. It should be for folks who are, who are struggling, like, you know, the mayor doesn’t want to see his constituents struggle, right? So let’s prevent that. Look, there’s so much stuff that’s coming into the city that’s helping the city. So let’s help, let’s use that good stuff. To help people not to struggle, right. You know, I mean, I’m a strong strong believer that affordable decent housing is a human right, you know just like self-determination Is a human right. Affordable decent housing is a human right. We shouldn’t have to struggle to live in affordable housing, and not just affordable, but decent housing. The Mayor shares that vision as well.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, well said. And I think it’s a good reminder that like they’re like, this isn’t just about like, you know, social justice or like this, this one person’s experiences you know, having to lose their home but it impacts the community, and impacts the strength of your, your city that because of there’s all these other effects when when people get evicted. So that was that was good to tie it all together there. So I think we’ve talked a little bit about already about what’s next for for the office and I can’t wait to follow your, your trials with the, with What Works Cities. But we do have another ending question usually for a couple of guests. If you could be the GovLove DJ, and you could pick the song to close out this episode, what song would you pick?

Khabirah Myers

Oh my gosh! A song to close. [Laughter] Oh boy, you, you have dumped me there, because I am a big fan of music. My husband is actually a musician. So I’m all about music and, and, you know, and I listen to all sorts of music, but a song? [Laughter] Wow! You know, I guess because I was just listening to Jabon de Javon, he’s a Brazilian artist, singer, vocalist, and songwriter. He’s amazing. I love de Javon and there was a song that I was recently listening to of his called Cigano. Cigano is the Portuguese term for Gypsy and it’s amazing. My father was a jazz historian and just growing up, we always listened to jazz. And Javon is in that sort of jazzy type genre. So I would close out the episode with Cigano by de Javon. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Okay, perfect. Awesome! We’ll get that cued up. And anything else you want to kind of end our that we didn’t get to, or anything you want to end the episode on?

Khabirah Myers

I just think that this is great. Then and I really appreciate you giving me you know, this platform and giving the City of Newark, you know, this platform to talk about the vision, the mayor’s vision and the vision for the city. It’s really great, really appreciate it. And I hope that we stay in touch.

Ben Kittelson

Yes, we will. And we’ll keep an eye on your work and I think it would be really interesting to see if there are other cities that start to model and create offices on after what you guys are doing up there in Newark.

Khabirah Myers

Absolutely.

Ben Kittelson

So yeah, with that, that ends our episode for today. Khabirah, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me.

Khabirah Myers

Thank you. Appreciate it.

Ben Kittelson

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