Community fears losing legal aid


One day in late 1986, representatives from the New York City Housing Authority turned up at Audrey Govine’s Williamsburg apartment claiming that they needed to search for spalling, or little flakes of asbestos. During their search, the NYCHA created gaping holes in her ceilings and the ceilings of every other resident in her housing project.

“They left those holes open for three years, and that stuff (spalling) was falling on everyone in the building,” said Govine, 72. “It fell while we were sleeping, while we were cooking, and the housing authority never came back.”

Govine and the other residents of Ten Eyck Walk were clueless as to what legal recourse they had for the damage done. So, they turned to Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A, known as Brooklyn A, for help.

Govine joined a large coalition of community organizations and Brooklyn residents Oct. 14 at the Legal Services of New York City’s headquarters in Manhattan to protect Brooklyn A, which is part of the Brooklyn division of LSC. The protest was in response to the LSC’s proposal to convert the Brooklyn branch of the agency from neighborhood-based, with two branch offices and three constituent offices, to one centrally located office.

Brooklyn A was started in 1967 as part of the War on Poverty to provide underserved communities such as Govine’s with access to free legal assistance.  Govine and the other tenants of Ten Eyck won their case as a result of Brooklyn A’s decade-long legal battle against the NYCHA.

Amid chants of “one, two, three, I want my lawyer close to me!” the crowd outside of the LSC headquarters fought against the proposal they fear might place free legal assistance just outside of their reach.

“These are the only attorneys willing to stand with us when we need them,” said Martha Vargas, 43, of Williamsburg. “And if they’re somewhere else, it’ll be easier for building owners to harass and evict us.”

LSC Board members, however, see the effects of consolidation much differently.

“The change will address the structural impediments that hinder our ability to provide excellent, high impact and efficient client services,” LSC President Mark Cunha said in a recent statement.

But Gary Hattern, president of Deutsche Bank AG of New York, which works closely with Brooklyn A, believes the effect will be dire.

“To lose the centrality of the community’s voice and input in the direction of the program would deprive these neighborhoods of what they have come to rely upon,” Hattern said in a letter directed to the LSC Board.

Community members argue that consolidation will rob the needy of access. “The elderly people that need these services, they can’t travel,” said Guillermo Enriquez, 73 of Williamsburg. “And they can’t afford expensive lawyers to replace the ones from Brooklyn A.”

Martin Needelman, project director and chief counsel for Brooklyn A, insists the issue is beyond proximity. Needelman says the move will diminish the effectiveness of Brooklyn A’s most vital services.

“They’re essentially dismantling a tremendously valuable network that’s increased the effectiveness of community organizations,” Needelman said. “It’s not just the physical location, it’s control of the priorities. These people deserve control; they deserve a say in what happens in their communities.”