New bill would guarantee a lawyer for tenants facing eviction

September 27, 2016

The City Council held a hearing Monday on a bill that would guarantee lawyers for all low-income residents facing eviction. The New York Times reports that the bill, which has the support of an overwhelming majority of council members, would make New York City the country’s first jurisdiction to do so. Currently more than 70 percent of low-income tenants in New York City head to Housing Court without legal representation according to a recent report by the city’s Office of Civil Justice, while landlords are almost always represented by lawyers. This leaves tenants at a disadvantage from the start, say tenant advocates. Last year nearly 22,000 tenants were evicted from their homes across the city.

Mayor on Housing Lawyers

Under the new bill, tenants who make below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($23,540 for a single person, $48,500 for a family of four) would qualify. The effort to provide legal representation for tenants, known as Civil Gideon in reference to the 1963 Supreme Court case that provided the right to counsel in criminal cases, has been picking up steam as the city deals with a well-known affordable housing crisis. According to an analysis by Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, from 2000 to 2012, the number of apartments renting for $1,000 or less dropped by 400,000.

The mayor’s office has not yet taken position on the bill, but the city has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to providing tenant legal services, with $62 million set aside this fiscal year by the mayor for that cause–up from $6.4 million in 2013. In 2015 evictions dropped to 21,988, an 18 percent decline from the previous year–and their lowest level in a decade. Steven Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration which coordinates the city’s legal initiatives to prevent eviction said his office was “reviewing the impact of the proposed legislation.”

Giving legal representation to low-income tenants would cost the city about $200 million a year, according to an independent advisory firm, but the effort would save the city over $300 million over that same period by keeping 5,237 families out of shelters at a cost of $43,000 per family, along with other savings.

Those who work in the field say few tenants know their rights under the city’s rent stabilization law, for example. When they show up at Housing Court, they may not even know the questions to ask. Lawyers can help tenants avoid eviction even if the rent is overdue. According to a study by the Legal Aid Society and the bar association, tenants’ chances of getting evicted drop by over 75 percent once they have a lawyer; landlords often drop eviction action once they find out the tenant has legal representation.

[Via NYTimes]


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