In 2013, Randy Dillard found himself on the wrong side of an eviction notice.
“I was numb,” he says of the moment he discovered the notice from his landlord. “I was frightened. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”
A single parent of five and a bricklayer by trade, Dillard, 62, got the eviction letter not long after he returned home from a months-long stay in the hospital, where he was receiving treatment for emphysema. He was losing his Bronx apartment, he learned, because the Section 8 housing program that subsidized his rent had stopped making payments to his landlord because of the property’s dilapidated condition. Despite the fact that the apartment’s pest infestation and its leaky plumbing were a result of the owner’s own negligence, Dillard says his landlord used the subsidy cutoff as an excuse to try to toss his family into the street.
“No one should have to look in their daughter’s eyes while she’s crying and saying she doesn’t want to go to a shelter, and you have to hold back your own tears and tell her that everything is going to be all right even though you don’t know if it will be all right,” he says. “No one should have to do that.”
For most tenants, this would have been the beginning of an unmitigated nightmare. They could have ended up in a shelter. They could have lost their jobs. Their kids might have had to move to a new school. They might have suffered a heath crisis, or something worse.
Dillard, though, was lucky. A neighbor told him about a local organization that offered free legal counsel to beleaguered tenants, a rare service in a city where only a tiny percentage of renters have customarily had access to housing attorneys. Dillard got a lawyer and a legal battle ensued, one which saw him return time and again to housing court. Finally, after three years of motions and proceedings and paperwork, his landlord sensed defeat and dropped the frivolous case.
The court fight enabled Dillard to stay in his apartment as long as he pleased. It also activated him.
“If I hadn’t had an attorney, I would have been evicted,” he says. “Without legal knowledge, there is no way I would have been able” to fight in court, he added.
After his eviction scare, Dillard wanted other tenants to benefit from the same sort of legal support he’d received, so he became an organizer with a Bronx-based housing-rights organization called Community Action for Safe Apartments, or CASA. He also took on a leadership role with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, the motivating force behind a visionary movement to guarantee all low-income tenants in New York City a right to legal counsel.