How to Fight Homelessness

NYTimes.pngBy Council Member Mark Levine and Mary Brosnahan

WITH over 58,000 people in our shelter system every night, and thousands more sleeping on the streets, concern about homelessness in New York City has reached a fever pitch. We must attack this challenge on every front: through construction of more housing with on-site services, expanded federal support for homeless families and improvements in city-run shelters.

But the best solution to homelessness is preventing it before it even occurs.

More than two-thirds of the people in our shelters are families with vulnerable children, and the most common cause of their homelessness isn’t drug dependency or mental illness. It’s eviction. If we can slow the pace of evictions, we will make a major dent in the homelessness crisis.

Evictions have reached epidemic proportions in New York City. The number of families forced from their homes by court order has been rising steadily for the last 10 years, and is now close to 29,000 per year. Countless thousands more are leaving under duress midway through eviction proceedings. Many end up with nowhere to go and are forced to turn to homeless shelters.

The sky-high pace of evictions is exacerbated by our profoundly unequal judicial system. Unlike those in criminal cases, New Yorkers in housing court have no right to counsel. The result: Only 10 percent of New York City tenants who appear in court have attorneys to help protect their rights. In stark contrast, close to 100 percent of landlords do. It’s hard to overstate just how badly this skews the results of eviction proceedings in favor of owners.

Housing law in New York is byzantine and challenging even for lawyers to navigate. For low-income tenants representing themselves, winning a case against a landlord’s attorney is a steep uphill climb. Unscrupulous landlords are fully aware of this dynamic and attempt to capitalize on it by routinely hauling tenants into housing court on weak grounds — knowing full well that the deck is stacked in their favor. Randomized studies have shown that those few tenants who do have attorneys are 80 percent less likely to be evicted as those representing themselves. Landlords know this, too — and will sometimes simply drop their case as soon as they realize a tenant is represented.

The status quo is untenable, and even judges are increasingly speaking out. New York State’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, has called eloquently and powerfully for the establishment of a right to counsel in housing court.

New York City has already taken significant steps toward the critical goal of representation for tenants. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have substantially increased funding for tenant attorneys in housing court in recent years. The mayor’s announcement last month of another $12.3 million for this important work will bring total funding to over $60 million — a tenfold increase since fiscal year 2014. The City’s Human Resources commissioner, Steve Banks, is the former head of the Legal Aid Society, with a profound commitment to expanding representation.

But even with this important progress, a vast majority of tenants must still fend for themselves when they face eviction. And more funding for attorneys is no substitute for the establishment of a mandated right to counsel, to guarantee a more level playing field in housing court no matter which way future political or fiscal winds blow.

That’s why the City Council introduced legislation — sponsored by one of us, Mark Levine, and Vanessa L. Gibson — to establish a right to counsel for all low-income tenants in housing court. A total of 38 council members have signed on as co-sponsors. The bill would make New York City the first in the nation to guarantee representation for tenants, and it would significantly decrease the number of families forced into homelessness here.

Establishing a right to counsel in housing court wouldn’t just reduce the human cost of homelessness — it would save New York money in the long run. It costs about $2,500 to provide a tenant with an attorney for an eviction proceeding, while we spend on average over $45,000 to shelter a homeless family. Our proposal makes good moral and financial sense.

Unless we attack the root causes of homelessness, we face the prospect of more New Yorkers entering our shelter system faster than we can move others out into apartments. We have the tools to stop this crisis, and we have the solution to end the eviction epidemic. New York should establish a right to counsel in housing court now.

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