“Right to Counsel” Leaders Call for Expansion of Landmark Tenants’ Rights Law

For Immediate Release: June 8, 2018
Contact: Jake Sporn // 516-946-5253 // jsporn@council.nyc.gov

City Hall, NY -- Less than a year after the historic passage of New York City’s landmark “Right to Counsel” legislation--and on the heels of San Francisco creating their own tenants’ right to counsel--the bill’s lead sponsors City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, together with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition (RTCNYC), are laying out a new agenda to strengthen and expand the nation’s first universal eviction legal defense law.

The Council passed Levine and Gibson’s bill, Intro 214, in July of 2017, making New York the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee legal representation in housing court for tenants. The new law mandated the NYC Office of Civil Justice provide New Yorkers with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – or $50,200 annually for a family of four – with free legal representation when facing an eviction.

As the Right to Counsel law approaches its one year anniversary this July, it has already had a dramatic impact in protecting tenants from eviction, including:

  • A 24 percent decrease in the number of evictions since 2014;
  • An increase in the number of non-profit legal aid attorneys working with tenants city-wide from 200 to 500 has yielded a corresponding rise in the number of tenants with legal representation from just 10 to over 27 percent; and
  • Reflecting a paradigm shift in the tenant-landlord relationship, the number of eviction cases filed in NYC’s housing courts has already started to drop--down almost 10 percent since 2014--proving that even just having an attorney reduces the number of frivolous cases landlords bring to housing court.

“The passage of our right to counsel law last year was an historic step towards justice in NYC’s housing courts, where for generations the vast majority of tenants faced the threat of eviction without the benefit of legal representation,” said Council Member Levine. “The stakes for implementation couldn’t be higher-- which is why we need to expand and strengthen this law to keep New Yorkers in their homes, off the streets, and out of the shelter system.”

“After just one year, Right to Counsel is proving to be an unprecedented success,” said Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “This groundbreaking legislation has kept people in their homes, and out of homeless shelters and housing courts. As we begin RTC’s second year and expand its implementation.”

Despite the new law’s extraordinary success, a combination of evolving landlord tactics, implementation issues in the courthouses, and lack of public awareness of the law continue to make it difficult for tenants to receive the legal representation they are now entitled to. To address these issues, Council Members Levine and Gibson, and RTCNYC Coalition leaders are advancing a new agenda that includes:

Increasing the income threshold to 400% of the federal poverty line
While the majority of tenants in housing court are eligible for the right to counsel under the current 200 percent threshold, a single New Yorker earning a $15 an hour minimum wage is not. To remedy this, Council Members Levine and Gibson are drafting legislation to double the qualifying threshold.

Said Council Member Levine, “The federal poverty level is totally out of whack with the reality on the ground in New York City. With the skyrocketing cost of living here, more and more people above 200% of the federal line are in fact facing enormous economic struggles. We need to expand the right to counsel law to reflect that.”  

Expanding the Right to Counsel Outside of Housing Court
While most eviction cases occur in City Housing Courts, several thousand are left to higher courts or administrative hearings, including:

  • HPD administrative hearings for Mitchell-Lama residents;
  • Certain Supreme Court Ejectment cases; and
  • Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) cases.

Though the current law guarantees tenants get an attorney for the entirety of their case, it does not cover appeals. With more tenants than ever being represented and winning their cases, landlords are filing more appeals. Without legal representation to defend their victories, tenants will be left alone when the final, most consequential, decision is made. Council Members Levine and Gibson are drafting legislation that would expand the law to HPD, DHCR, and in Supreme Court Ejectment hearings and appeals.  

Connecting tenants to attorneys before they arrive at court
For the Right to Counsel law to be truly universal, every tenant needs to know about it, understand it, and use it. Neighborhood based groups with histories of tenant organizing and community service are trusted community partners and therefore are best positioned to do the outreach and education work that is critical to the law’s success. In addition to calling on the New York State Chief Judge to amend eviction notices issued in NYC to alert tenants of their right to an attorney, Council Members Levine and Gibson are also pursuing legislation that would fund community based organizations to conduct outreach and engagement to inform tenants of their right to an attorney.

Said Council Member Gibson, “I want to once again thank the many advocates, community groups, and especially the Right to Counsel Coalition and my partner in this effort, Council Member Mark Levine, for their commitment to New York tenants and fairness in housing court. Our historic legislation has laid the groundwork for cities across the country to enact their own right to counsel laws and our movement will help reduce homelessness across America. As the rollout continues, I look forward to working with all stakeholders to improve upon the good work we have done and enact additional legislative reforms that build on our success. Together we protect and preserve tenants rights!”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said, “’Right to Counsel’ is one of the strongest tools that we have to prevent evictions, homelessness and displacement. Strengthening this law can help us go even further when it comes to protecting our city’s tenants. I congratulate Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, as well as the entire Right To Counsel NYC Coalition, for their efforts to make this law a reality and to protect New York’s tenants by providing them with counsel in housing court.”

“We have the track record to prove it — establishing the right to counsel in housing court works, reducing evictions and helping correct a gross power imbalance,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “If you’re working full-time at minimum wage, you should qualify for the right-to-counsel program.”

Randy Dillard, a leader of the tenants’ rights group, CASA, said, “A lot of tenants who have this new right, don't know about it. And what's more, being evicted is really frightening and brings a lot of shame, and so just knowing your rights isn't enough to confront the fear and shame that evictions bring, especially in the context of landlords having so much power and your home being on the line. Community based organizing groups, who are trusted members of the community and who have strong ties and relationships with community members need to be the ones doing outreach and organizing to respond to landlord retaliation. Right now RTC funds lawyers but the true cost should cover funding for neighborhood based community groups.”

“Across the country and especially in New York City, low-income tenants need access to comprehensive legal services to thwart unlawful evictions,” said Judith Goldiner, Attorney-In-Charge of the Civil Law Reform Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “This must include a right to counsel during the housing appeals process where the right to an attorney makes all the difference. Anything else falls short of what is truly needed. The Legal Aid Society stands with Council Member Mark Levine and Council Member Vanessa Gibson in support of RTC 2.0 to strengthen the current law, benefiting our clients and poor New Yorkers.”

Jennie Laurie, Executive Director of Housing Court Answers said, “We need to raise the income threshold for right to counsel. 200% of the federal poverty level – the current threshold - is not a high income in New York City. Today, a single person making the minimum wage working a full-time job at 40 hours a week is over income. Clearly, a tenant at this income level could not afford a private attorney – but would still be a prime target for landlord harassment and displacement. Let’s raise the threshold to 400% - that would allow representation for almost all tenants facing eviction in Housing Court.

"All NYC tenants should be able to fight to defend their homes," said Marika Dias, Director of the Tenant Rights Coalition at Legal Services NYC, "That includes working tenants who can't afford to pay for a lawyer; tenants who are fighting to keep essential housing subsidies so they can pay their rent; and tenants who want to come together in their neighborhoods to stand up for their rights. That’s why expanding our right to counsel law is a critical next step in the struggle to keep our communities together and families in their homes."

“The threat of eviction particularly hits low-income tenants and families the hardest and leaves far too many New Yorker’s stripped unfairly of one of life’s most basic necessities,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat (NY-13). “I commend Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson in collaboration with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition (RTCNYC) for today’s announcement that will strengthen and expand the nation’s first universal eviction legal defense program. We must continue our efforts to guarantee universal access to legal counsel and ensure all tenants facing eviction can have their day in housing court.”

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