Low-Income Tenants May Soon Have the Right to an Attorney in Housing Court

Council member Vanessa Gibson at a press conference calling for legal counsel for low-income tenants.
Council member Vanessa Gibson at a press conference calling for legal counsel for low-income tenants.

If you're charged with a crime, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution ensures that you have a lawyer, even if you cannot afford one. If you're taken to housing court by your landlord, as a tenant, you're on your own. Today, community leaders, homeless policy experts, council members, and other tenants, called for the City Council to pass a bill that would give low-income New Yorkers a right to counsel in housing court.

The "Right to Counsel" bill, Intro 214, introduced in 2014 by council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, would provide free legal representation to low-income tenants and homeowners who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — households with families of four in New York City earning less than $44,000 a year — and facing legal proceedings in housing court.

Randy Dillard, a resident of the Bronx, can’t forget the confusion and crippling depression he encountered when he faced eviction in Bronx Housing Court five years ago.

"It was a nightmare," Dillard testified at today's council hearing. The single parent of five was unemployed because of a health condition, and on low-income rental assistance. After a stint in the hospital, he came home to find out he had been served with eviction papers.

"The fear of going to a shelter frightened [my daughter] as well as it did me," he says. It didn’t help that he had no idea what his legal rights were or how to navigate the court system. If he hadn’t been able to secure a lawyer through Community Action for Safe Apartments, a tenants’ group in the Bronx, Dillard said he would’ve lost the fight to keep his home.

"My attorney explained everything to me," he says. With the help of his lawyer, Dillard and his family were able to remain in their apartment.

Though the majority of City Council members support the bill, the hearing addressed the concerns regarding costs surrounding free legal services. But a report released in March 2016, commissioned by the New York City Bar Association, estimates that the city would save over $300 million after factoring in the costs of spending on unsheltered homeless families and replacing affordable housing lost to evictions. In 2015 alone, 21,988 New York City families were evicted from their homes.

The cost of providing legal services would "pay for itself," said Neil Steinkamp, one of the authors of the case study, especially when the cost of providing counsel is $2,000 to $3,000 per case, very little compared with the collateral consequences of sheltering homeless families at over $40,000 annually per family.

Council member Vanessa Gibson, one of the sponsors of the legislation, noted that 90 percent of tenants appear in housing court without attorneys, yet over 90 percent of landlords do have counsel.

There’s a higher likelihood of success in court with an attorney, particularly for marginalized individuals, when "you walk into court with more gravitas and respect, and most individuals with attorneys are able to stay in their homes," Gibson says.

Through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, $62 million in funding was put toward legal services for lower-income tenants this fiscal year, and evictions have decreased by more than 24 percent since 2014.

If passed, the bill would make New York City the first municipality nationwide to provide low-income tenants with free legal representation.


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