News & Politics

Tenants Are Finally Getting the Right to an Attorney in Housing Court

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In what tenant advocates call a “huge victory,” the City Council passed long-awaited legislation yesterday that will guarantee low-income tenants facing eviction in Housing Court the right to a city-funded lawyer.

The bill, first introduced in 2014 and passed by a 42-3 vote, will fund legal representation for tenants making less than twice the federal poverty level, currently $24,120 for a single person and $49,200 for a family of four. It will launch first in ten to fifteen zip codes around the five boroughs and expand to cover the full city over the next five years. Mayor Bill de Blasio — who initially opposed the measure on the grounds that it would cost too much and that he was already increasing spending on legal services, then endorsed it in February — has indicated he will sign the bill, releasing a statement saying it “will help more people stabilize their lives and keep roofs over their heads.”

“This is truly historic,” says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers, which provides legal advice to tenants representing themselves in Housing Court (as well as the small minority of landlords who don’t have attorneys). “It means that hundreds of thousands of tenants who go to court without lawyers and face eviction will have access to justice.”

The bill makes New York the first city to establish a right to counsel for defendants in Housing Court, where a substantial majority of tenants facing eviction have no legal representation. Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, has called the idea “civil Gideon” — a reference to Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed criminal defendants the right to a lawyer if they couldn’t afford to hire one. Tenants below the income limits facing eviction cases will get full legal representation, while those who make more will still be entitled to advice and what the council calls “brief legal assistance.”

When the measure was introduced in 2014 by councilmembers Mark Levine (D- Manhattan) and Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx), a common estimate was that 90 percent of defendants in Housing Court had no lawyers, while 90 percent of landlords did. This discrepancy puts tenants at a huge disadvantage, particularly if they are unfamiliar with basic housing law or don’t speak much English. Most Housing Court cases are resolved in the halls outside the courtroom, where landlord lawyers and tenants sign “stipulations” to settle a case, such as the tenant agreeing to pay back rent by a certain date or face eviction.

The program is expected to cost $93 million a year once it covers the whole city in 2022.

The de Blasio administration has dramatically expanded spending on civil legal services for tenants, from $9.7 million in the 2013 fiscal year to just over $70 million in 2017. As a result, the number of tenants represented by lawyers in Housing Court grew to 27 percent, according to the city’s Office of Civil Justice’s 2016 annual report. The number of eviction warrants issued by Housing Court judges, which set a record of 132,734 in 2013, fell to 111,666 in 2015. The number of evictions carried out by city marshals declined from almost 29,000 in 2013 to just under 22,000 in 2015.

Since last year, the city has guaranteed lawyers to tenants facing eviction in ten zip codes, says Laurie: two in Harlem; two in the Jamaica–Springfield Gardens area of Queens; two on Staten Island’s North Shore; two more in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Bushwick; and two in the northwest and central Bronx. More than 35 percent of the 236,000 eviction cases filed in 2015 were in the Bronx.

Laurie says she expects the city to add five more zip codes in the program’s first year, one in each borough. They would be selected based on which areas have high numbers of rent-regulated tenants threatened with displacement, high poverty rates, and high numbers of people entering city homeless shelters.

One exception to the guarantee, however, will be public-housing tenants. If the New York City Housing Authority wants to evict them — either for creating a nuisance or for being late with their rent three times — it does so through an administrative proceeding. NYCHA still must go to Housing Court to get a warrant of eviction, but the judge can’t overturn the decision. The bill would establish a pilot program by October to provide legal assistance, though not necessarily full representation, for tenants in these proceedings.

“It’s not completely clear to us what the administration means to do,” says Laurie.

The de Blasio administration initially opposed providing legal representation for public-housing tenants, but eventually compromised. Winning that representation, Laurie adds, was a “core demand” of the New York City Coalition for a Right to Counsel in Housing Court, the alliance of tenant advocates and housing lawyers that lobbied for the bill. Overall, she says, the bill is a rare example of a judicial right being expanded without a major court decision such as Gideon.

“Too often eviction and displacement is the cause of poverty and the unraveling of our communities,” Adriene Holder, head of civil practice at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement to the Voice. “This bill works to remedy this injustice by providing attorneys to low-income New Yorkers in Housing Court. The availability of legal services will decrease evictions, prevent homelessness, and finally address the uphill battle against landlords tenants face each day they walk into Housing Court.”

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