Mayor Bill de Blasio announces findings on tenant representation last August. Image: nyc.gov
6sqft reported last year on a new bill that would guarantee a lawyer for all low-income residents facing eviction. On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed that bill into law, guaranteeing legal representation for low-income residents who face eviction (h/t Citylab). The legislation is the nation’s first that provides right to counsel in housing matters. The new law is the result of efforts of activists and organizers that began in 2014.
The new law gives legal representation to any New Yorker facing eviction whose income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The act could transform housing court in New York: Until 2014 more than 70 percent of low-income tenants in New York City have headed to Housing Court without legal representation, while landlords are represented by lawyers in more than 90 percent of cases, leaving tenants at a disadvantage from the beginning. In 2015 nearly 22,000 tenants were evicted from their homes across the city.
John Pollock, coordinator for the National Coalition of the Civil Right to Counsel adds, “Cases are disposed of quickly. There’s not really any due process.” Tenants often have valid defenses that could stop or postpone eviction, such as neglected repairs.
Even in cases where eviction is warranted, says Pollock, “The attorney may be able to keep the eviction off their records. They may be able to find them alternative housing. They may be able to get them into subsidized housing. They can arrange a soft landing in so many ways.”
With the new law in effect, New York leads the way among several other cities on their way to enacting what are called “civil Gideon” laws (referring to the landmark United States Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), in which the Supreme Court decided that indigent defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney, at no charge, in state criminal cases) including San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. It should be noted, though, that the Trump administration’s budget plans could affect right to counsel in some places. The administration has proposed slashing the budget of the Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency providing legal service funding to states, which accounts for 20 percent of the funding of Legal Services NYC, for example. Pollock says, “In some states, legal aid funding comes almost entirely from the Legal Services Corporation.”
Efforts by the tenant legal services community on the topic of right to counsel in housing court were ramped up in 2014 when the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition was formed, leading to more funding for the issue. Evictions have already declined by 24 percent since 2014, and the percentage of tenants who appear with representation in housing court has risen to about 27 percent.
Marika Dias, director of the Tenant Rights Coalition at Legal Services NYC, says that over the next five years there will be a phase-in process, “So it’s going to take five years to get to the point where all tenants who are under 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines get full representation.” She adds that the legislation has provisions for tenants who are over that income threshold to get some legal services as well. “By the time we get through the 5-year phase-in, 100 percent of tenants in housing court will have access to either full representation or the advice of the lawyer.”
The New York City Council passed the act in July with a veto-proof majority, committing $155 million over five years to fulfill the promise of a right to counsel. It has been projected that an increase in legal representation will actually save money for the city since frivolous cases that might have previously gone unchallenged won’t waste time in the justice system. And fewer illegal evictions means fewer households experiencing transitional homelessness; aside from the obvious benefits of keeping families from being homeless, that reduction lifts a substantial burden carried by cities. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition predicts that $320 million per year will be saved there–significantly above the program’s costs.
Civil Gideon laws that establish a right to counsel are in the works for immigration, guardianship, and incarceration over fees and penalties–housing is only the newest victory. If federal funding for legal aid survives the Trump budget cuts, more cities may soon try to adapt New York City’s law. “In many places there’s some version of this, in the sense that they’ve appropriated funds or passed legislation,” Dias says, “but none of them have the comprehensive right that we now have.”
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