Mr. J was 83 years old when he realized he was in danger of losing the Clinton Hill/Bed-Stuy house he’d owned for more than 30 years.
It had been a tough few years for the Brooklyn resident. The senior had triple bypass surgery, and while he was recovering, both of his tenants stopped paying rent, leaving him behind by about $30,000 on his property taxes and insurance.
Years prior, he’d taken out a reverse mortgage on the home. Now, the bank was bringing a foreclosure action against him and the home.
Mr. J bought the house in 1989 for less than $200,000. With the ravenous Brooklyn housing market, by 2019 it was now worth more than $2 million.
That’s when he and his grandson reached out to the pro-bono lawyers at Access Justice Brooklyn, then called the Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project.
“What we did was fortuitous in the situation: Mr J was able to take advantage of the ERMA program, which will provide a person over 62, who has a reverse mortgage in arrears, with a $25,000 loan,” Access Justice Brooklyn Supervising Attorney Peter S. White II told BK Reader.
“We just heard about it, it had just come out [in 2020]. So we applied, and we were able to obtain the funds. He was the first individual in New York State to get ERMA.”
As a result of the help from Access Justice Brooklyn, Mr. J was able to keep his home.
This is just one example of the thousands of low-income Brooklynites the pro-bono legal services organization has helped over the years.
Founded in 1990 as the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, the organization has pioneered a pro-bono model in the borough.
The model sees the organization recruit, train supervise and mentor volunteers—often law students, legal assistants and even corporate attorneys—to provide free legal help for Brooklyn clients living at 200% of the Federal Poverty Guideline (about $27,000 for a single person).
As of 2021, Access Justice Brooklyn had 1,000 trained lawyers on its panel, with a little over 200 actively working on cases, Access Justice Brooklyn CEO and President Heidi Lee Henderson told BK Reader.
Since she started at the organization in 2014, she’s seen it grow, both in terms of staff, office space, and a budget that has expanded from $700,000 to around $2 million annually. The firm is predominantly funded by state contracts, foundation grants, fundraising and corporate donors.
The organization has a focus on ensuring equal access to the justice system and “finding ways to connect with communities that may not typically access the justice system,” Henderson said.
“We’ve had a big focus on senior citizens over the years,” she said. “Often they may be isolated, and may not know of our resources.”
The organization is responsive to the changing legal needs of the community, too, Henderson said.
Often it will create a speciality program to help with crises that crop up in the community. Through the Trump Administration, this meant training lawyers to help with immigration and naturalization. There was a program developed in response to Hurricane Sandy.
In 2009, after the subprime mortgage crisis—of which many Brooklynites of color were victims of—the firm started a foreclosure assistance program. More recently, it founded a program to help first responders manage their affairs amid the pandemic, with free legal help managing health directives and even end-of-life affairs.
“There’s always an ongoing need in response to crises,” Henderson said. “We’re constantly trying to identify the needs.”
One of the biggest areas of need in Brooklyn has been around consumer credit, Access Justice Brooklyn Director of Legal Services Sidney Cherubin said.
Typically the cases see third-party debt-buyers taking Brooklyn residents to court to collect money. This can affect those with private student loans, people with medical bills, seniors who have co-signed for relatives’ auto loans, small store cards and many more.
“We will see people as early as they know they’re in default, and they’re afraid they’re going to get sued,” Cherubin said.
While they may be afraid, they’re in good hands at Access Justice Brooklyn.
The firm has multiple legal routes to defend Brooklynites, including forcing the debt-buyer to verify the debt, which they often can’t do, and pushing them to show up to trial with a witness, which they also often can’t do, meaning the case gets thrown out.
If the debt can be verified, Access Justice Brooklyn will push for settlements on the debt as low as 10% of what is asked.
“Coming into the position 15 years ago, I was most apprehensive about that area of law,” Cherubin said. “But now it’s one of my favorite areas of law, because you get results.”
When asked why he’d been at the firm so long, he said he truly enjoys what he does, helping some of the neediest people in Brooklyn: from seniors to single-moms, immigrants and those with some of the lowest incomes in the borough.
“I love the work, I love that it’s results-oriented, and people are happy about the results,” Cherubin said.
“I have an opportunity to train and mentor new attorneys, law students and they’re giving back and filling a much needed gap in Brooklyn.”
To contact Access Justice Brooklyn with a legal issue or to volunteer, click here.