By Amanda Tukaj
The New York City Council passed a bill on Thursday to guarantee free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court. The bill codifies an agreement, announced in February this year, between the Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to fully fund anti-eviction legal services in the next five years.
The “Right to Counsel” legislation, Intro. 214, was sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, who have consistently advocated for the bill since introducing it three years ago. Under the new law, the first of its kind in the country, the city’s Office of Civil Justice Coordinator will provide low-income tenants -- those with household incomes below $49,200, or 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four -- with legal representation free of cost, phased in by zip codes over five years. The law will also provide legal consultations to those whose income is higher than the bill’s threshold and establish a legal services program by October this year for New York City Housing Authority tenants facing administrative proceedings to terminate their tenancy. The city has allocated $15 million to implement the new provisions in fiscal year 2018, increasing that to $93 million by 2022 by when it is expected to serve 400,000 New Yorkers.
The mood in the Council chambers before Thursday’s vote was celebratory as Council members expressed their support for the bill and congratulated their colleagues on achieving a key priority of the dominantly progressive body. At one point, the chamber filled with whoops and cheers from tenant advocates who had fought for the legislation and were there to see its passage. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority, with 42 Council members voting for it and one abstention. Only the three Republican members of the body voted against the bill.