Councilman proposes expanding right to lawyers in housing court

New_York_Daily_News_logo_(2).png By Jillian Jorgensen

The City Council members behind landmark legislation to provide tenants facing eviction with lawyers are looking to expand the right to counsel in housing cases — less than a year after the initial law passed.

Councilman Mark Levine and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson plan to introduce bills that would expand the program — in large part by raising the income threshold needed to qualify. The current standard, 200% of the federal poverty level, amounts to $50,200 annually for a family of four. But for a single person, making the $15-an-hour minimum wage would push them over the limit and make them ineligible for legal representation under the program.

“It’s a response to changing economics of the city, where the cost of housing and the cost of living continues to rise, and we are totally out of whack with the federal poverty level,” Levine said. “We need to capture the people who are in need, and that does include people who are above the 200% threshold.”

Levine and Gibson will propose increasing that threshold to 400% of the federal poverty level.

“It’s not lost on us that San Francisco Tuesday night passed a bill modeled on our program, except without an income cap,” Levine said. “We don’t want to be a step behind San Francisco.”

The current law, signed last August, uses city funds to provide attorneys for lower income people facing eviction in housing court. Unlike in criminal court, where an attorney is provided if a defendant cannot afford one, people are not guaranteed an attorney in eviction proceedings.

Levine said he’ll also look to fund outreach by community groups to let people know about their right to a lawyer in housing — so they can get one before the day they’re called to appear. Since the law has been passed, Levine said, some landlords have been seeking out tenants on security lines, knowing they’ll be pointed to an attorney once they’re inside.

“They’re making aggressive offers to tenants before they speak to their attorney, and telling them that offer might not be on the table once they bring their own lawyer into the discussion,” Levine said. “That’s a very scary situation for a tenant to be in.”

The proposal would also expand the right to other venues where New Yorkers face eviction — including Housing Preservation and Development administrative hearings for Mitchell-Lama residents, certain ejectment cases in Supreme Court, and cases involving Housing Development Fund Corporation residences.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “We will review the proposed bills, but we agree that New Yorkers should not lose their homes because they cannot afford a lawyer and stopping wrongful evictions from happening makes both ethical and economic sense.”

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