Hotline Volunteer: ‘Empowering Tenants to Stand Up’

The Met Council hotline operates 18 hours a week: on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1:30 to 8 p.m. and Fridays from 1:30–5 p.m. Our downtown Manhattan clinic operates every Tuesday evening from 6:30–8:30, at the Cooper Square Committee, 61 E. 4th St. Our newly opened uptown clinic is open the first and third Wednesdays of the month at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, 91 Arden St. in Washington Heights

We provide hotline and clinic services in both English and Spanish. We help tenants in any kind of housing, regardless of their income. Last year, Met Council provided counseling to over 3,500 tenants. We have already answered 1,000 calls on our hotline this year.

Met Council is often the first organization tenants turn to when they have a problem, and our Web site is often the first resource they find online: 56 percent of callers report that they didn’t know where to turn and just searched for “tenants rights help.” The most common reason people call us is threats of eviction, followed by needing repairs and illegal deregulation.

There are currently 22 hotline volunteers. They sign up for a minimum of three months, but often stay for years. One of the newer ones is Caitlin Shann, 38, who has been volunteering since January. She had been involved in the tenant movement in her neighborhood, Ridgewood, Queens, and was looking for an opportunity to connect to citywide housing campaigns. She heard about Met Council through a Facebook invite to a general meeting, and decided to volunteer for the hotline after she went.

One call she took was from a 62-year-old man whose father had passed away a week before. He had been living in the rent-controlled apartment with his father since 2014, and was concerned that he was going to be evicted. It was his primary residence, and he wanted to be sure he has succession rights.

“I truly believe in the philosophy of tenants helping themselves and tenants helping tenants,” Shann says. “I believe in empowering tenants to stand up to their landlords by themselves.” Just under half of all tenants that call the hotline need a referral to another organization or a lawyer. 

In her time as a hotline volunteer, Shann has learned how to read an apartment’s rent history and why it’s important; joined Met Council’s Tenant Association Committee; and has begun organizing tenants in the 44-unit building where she lives to stand together against illegal destabilization and the preferential-rent scam. She has also helped tenants living all over the city—including some in her own neighborhood—to know their rights. Volunteers get an initial training on tenants’ rights, and then attend multiple trainings throughout the year. 

Knowledge is empowerment, she believes. Callers almost always “feel that they have control over their situation” and that their concerns are valid after speaking to a volunteer, she says. “All we talk about in this city in terms of housing is building new developments. Meanwhile, people are suffering in their housing situations now, and there’s no one out there saying, ‘you should be mad and stand up to your landlord if they are doing something wrong.’”

Despite the work that the Met Council hotline volunteers do, they are only able to answer slightly less than half of the calls that come in. Having more work stations, phone lines, and computers would enable them to answer a larger percentage of the calls and help more tenants. With only six open call lines available, volunteers pack into the small office space, with others returning tenants’ calls from their own cell phones.

“We are cramped and it’s loud, which is challenging, as callers sometimes struggle to hear me, or vice versa,” says Shann. But, she adds, “It is amazing how organized the hotline is, with only three full-time staff members. The hotline has helped me quickly learn about the many challenges tenants face in New York, and with the support of the Met Council staff, I am able to provide on-the-ground help tenants need. It’s pretty incredible!”

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