Stronger stuff is needed.
Councilmembers who have introduced new legislation designed to strengthen the city’s “Right to Counsel” law, passed last year that provided legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court, argue that the original law needs to be strengthened.
Intro 214-B, passed in August 2017, mandated the New York City Office of Civil Justice to provide renters 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.
On September 12, City Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, the lead sponsors of Intro 214-B, unveiled additional legislation to expand the law.
The new bill would increase the program’s income threshold to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, expand Right to Counsel outside of housing court, and connect tenants to attorneys before they arrive at court.
“The passage of our Right to Counsel law last year was a 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 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.”
At a City Hall press conference, Levine pointed out that 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.
“The federal poverty level is totally out of whack with the reality in New York City. With the skyrocketing cost of living here, more and more people above 200 percent of the federal line are in fact facing enormous economic struggles,” he said. “We need to expand the Right to Counsel law to reflect that.”
Levine asserted online with a tweet that one year into the five-year implementation of the law, tenants have seen “dramatic results.” He listed the following as evidence: “eviction rate is DOWN 24%; # of legal aid attorneys working with tenants UP from 200 to 500; total # of eviction cases DOWN by almost 10%.”
And while the current law guarantees tenants 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.
Levine and advocates said an expansion of Right to Counsel was needed to cover appeals as well as a broader range of hearings.
The new legislation would expand the law to Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) administrative hearings, Housing Development Fund Corporation cases, and certain Supreme Court Ejectment hearings and appeals.
It would also fund outreach efforts by community-based organizations to inform residents about Right to Counsel.
Randy Dillard, an organizer with Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) said many tenants are unaware of the law. “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,” he said.
“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,” Dillard added. “Right now, [Right to Counsel] funds lawyers but the true cost should cover funding for neighborhood-based community groups.”
When Intro 214-B was passed, New York became the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee legal representation in housing court.
Councilmembers said that Right to Counsel has already had a significant impact on protecting tenants, pointing out that the Bronx has seen a 15 percent decrease in evictions within the two Bronx zip codes included in the first-year rollout of the law.
Since the law was passed, the number of tenants with legal representation has risen from 10 percent to 27 percent, they said.
“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,” stated Gibson. “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.”