Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou On Economic Injustice: ‘People Get Trapped In Cycles Of Poverty Because Of One Bad Decision’

Four years ago, at 33 years old, Yuh-Line Niou was first elected to represent New York State’s Assembly District 65, comprised of Lower Manhattan as well as Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Since that time she’s remained vigorous in advancing legislation to combat economic inequality, from financing affordable housing to strengthening consumer protections. (When not doing politics, Niou looks after a handsome young furry boy named Samson.)

Niou recently spoke to the Downtown Alliance about the work she’s been doing for New Yorkers in our district and across the state.

Can you talk a little about your priorities on the Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee?

I’ve always been cognizant that I work to end poverty. A lot of the equity bills that I write are bills that protect consumers. That’s everyone who lives in my district. That’s folks who, you know, obviously are targeted for scams, like seniors and people with disabilities or people who speak English as a second language. These are really important bills that help to make things more fair for everyone.

I have a bill that is called the Consumer and Small Business Protection Act. It will make it so that we prohibit unfair, deceptive and predatory practices. We’ve experienced in my district fraudulent tutoring centers, where parents are literally paying $6,000 a month for their kids to have tutoring and yet they’re asked to go and play, like, “Minecraft” or something. And robocall scams have scammed my community out of $3 million! Anybody can fall for them.

How real has the financial fallout been for some of the victims in our district? 

People get trapped in cycles of poverty because of one bad decision. For example, even on a lease for kitchen equipment — schemes like these can trap our small businesses, because they think that it’s a good deal but then they end up signing a lease that’s longer than the life of the equipment. We’ve encountered a lot of that. Folks come to our office and tell us about what happened to them. Then I’m thinking, What is it that would change how this person is experiencing this? A lot of times when we’re looking at one case, it’s not just making sure that this person is taken care of, but How do we expand that and think about how we can impact everybody that needs that protection?

So these laws are meant to help everyone. 

It’s not just folks who are immigrants and seniors in the senior center that experience it. I have had my share of predatory landlords. I have had my share of things that come in the mail that are oddly suspicious. I’ve had my share of robocalls. I’ve had my share of things that shouldn’t have happened to anybody. These are bills that will affect everyone, and it’s important that people understand and know that.

Can you talk a little bit about the legislation you’ve been pushing to combat predatory lenders? 

I have bills that make it so that we are stopping things like Confessions of Judgment. They’re utilized for loans, such as the taxi medallion issue. They should be prohibited, because it’s basically an admittance of guilt before you even have taken a loan or even done anything. You’re basically just signing that you’re guilty of something. And so that makes it so, like, the marshal can come in and pull things from your bank account. It’s nuts.

Confessions of Judgment are very dangerous, and we’re one of the states that allows the usage of them. I don’t think that we should. There was an amazing Bloomberg series that had five different stories linked to this predatory practice. It was a really eye-opening thing for me to see, because I had so many constituents coming in, talking to me about how somebody could just pull things from their bank account.

I was just like, What is it that is linking all of these stories? Then I zeroed in on how it was Confessions of Judgment. That was the common thread. So we had to think about how to deal with that, and I did more research and realized, Wow, there are places that prohibit this usage. Right now, we haven’t passed a bill that is going to impact that in our state — we did pass one that didn’t allow for Confessions of Judgment from outside the state to come in here. That’s a little different, but we need to make sure we’re protecting New York State residents from having to have this horrible experience.

Since 2016, for which town-hall priorities have you fought the hardest up in Albany? 

The biggest was probably housing. We heard from so many tenants. In our district we have folks who live in NYCHA public housing. I carry the New York City Housing Authority budget letter every single year that I’ve been there, and after I got there, because of our budget letter — having every single legislator responsible for any NYCHA signed on — we were able to get funding from the state for public housing for the very first time. And now that we’ve opened those doors, we’re hoping to open them even wider.

Previously the state had never funded NYCHA as its own state entity. It’s always gone through HUD and federal funding, but because of the lack of federal investment over the last however-many decades, we’ve really had to think about stepping up. The issues in public housing have rapidly deteriorated in the last 10 years, and so it’s been very obvious that we’ve needed to put in over $40 billion into capital needs. I’m trying to ask for $3 billion this year and in perpetuity for capital improvements and needs in our public housing. We need to make sure that we’re actually helping.