By Jake Bittle
For almost a year now, New York tenants who live in select ZIP codes have been entitled to a free lawyer if their landlord tries to evict them, thanks to a law passed by the City Council in 2017. But you might not know it from walking into the Bronx Housing Court on the date of your court appearance. Only one sign on each of the building’s five floors lists the ZIP codes that are currently covered as the five-year rollout of the law continues. These signs are handwritten in marker, and two of them were inaccurate on a recent November afternoon.
If you went straight into the courtroom and waited for your case to be called, you still might not know: the two judges assigned to the covered ZIP codes in the Bronx only announce the existence of the right-to-counsel program once a day.
Today, the city will hold the first public hearing on the the right-to-counsel law, which took effect in January after a broad coalition of organizers spent years pushing for its passage. Lawyers, tenants, and advocates who spoke with Gothamist ahead of the hearing said the implementation of the program thus far has been promising, but uneven. Court-appointed lawyers have started to transform the predatory environment of housing court, resulting in fewer evictions, but some eligible tenants still slip through the cracks, and implementation has been more successful in some boroughs than others.
Before the hearing, the city’s Human Resources Administration released a report showing that nearly one third of tenants who appeared for eviction cases this year were represented by lawyers, up from only 1% of tenants in 2013. According to the city’s analysis, this new representation prevented over 22,000 evictions across the five boroughs. By 2022, legal services will be available to anyone in New York who makes up to double the federal poverty level— $30,000 for an individual, or $50,000 for a family of four.
For a Bronx tenant named Pamela, who asked that we withhold her full name due to her ongoing legal proceedings, the mere fact of having a lawyer on her side made all the difference. Her landlord took her to court claiming she didn’t send rent checks that she says were cashed. With the help of her Legal Aid lawyer, she pushed for an adjournment, and the court subpoenaed the landlord’s financial records in order to investigate who cashed the checks and when.
“If I didn’t have a lawyer, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I would have been stressed out, headaching, trying to figure out what I can do to get the truth out. And you know, I’m a fighter, but that doesn’t mean I can do it all on my own.”
“The climate in these courtrooms has changed significantly,” said Andrew Scherer, a lawyer who co-chairs the New York City Bar Association’s civil justice task force, which formed earlier this year to evaluate the rollout of the right-to-counsel law. “People are more aware of their rights, and there’s a lot more actual litigation going on.”
Still, Scherer says he’s observed some hiccups in the rollout, most noticeably in the Bronx. In that borough, lawyers contracted by the city to provide free counsel are based not out of an enclosed office, but off a counter in the third-floor lobby where they process around 50 new cases a day, a much higher load than other boroughs. The caseload and the chaotic arrangement of space make it very difficult for the service providers to have private, substantial conversations with their clients.
“Capacity is a huge issue there,” said Scherer. “These facilities were inadequate when there was half the current amount of litigation.”
Owing to the chaos, many tenants end up advocating for themselves against the professional lawyers hired by their landlords. On a particularly busy Thursday, one man, Wilfredo Guillermo, had been waiting for more than an hour to speak with Legal Aid when Gothamist interviewed him. Guillermo said he was considering dealing with his case on his own. The landlord for an apartment where he no longer lives, he said, had taken him to court over rent that his former spouse, who still lives there, hadn’t paid.
“For so long, housing court has been a collection agency for landlords,” said Judith Goldiner, the Legal Aid attorney who has overseen the organization’s right-to-counsel contract with the city, hiring dozens of new lawyers to meet the demand. “It’s understandable that tenants don’t think it could actually work in their favor,” she said. “We’re making it into a real court.”
When facing unrepresented tenants, attorneys representing landlords often try to end cases before they even begin: they pull tenants from the courtroom into a crowded hallway, present them with a stack of paper, and telling them they can leave court immediately if they sign on the line and agree to a deal offered by their landlord. Sometimes these lawyers will even approach tenants and try to hash out deals without revealing who they work for.
What’s more, Goldiner said, many tenants fear backlash from their landlords if they choose to take a lawyer, and some landlords’ lawyers threaten to revoke settlement deals if the tenant takes a lawyer. But the biggest hurdle Legal Aid has faced thus far in the Bronx, she said, is simply making sure tenants are aware that counsel is available. According to the city’s data, 56% of tenants in the eligible ZIP codes claimed their free counsel this year.
At Housing Court in Brooklyn, things are relatively more organized. When tenants visit the clerk to get their case ticket, the clerk is supposed to tell them if their ZIP code entitles them to a lawyer; if the clerk doesn’t, two employees of the nonprofit Housing Court Answers wait at a table in the screening room to inform them of their rights. As eligible tenants proceed to their cases, they are processed again by employees from the city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees the right-to-counsel program. When their cases are called, the supervising judge, Marc Finkelstein, reminds them of their rights again.
David Burton, a lawyer who mainly represents landlords in Brooklyn, said the right-to-counsel law has contributed to an increase in what he called “unnecessary motion practice.” Represented tenants, he said, tend to file more motions for delay and adjournment, which stretch out cases that might formerly have been opened and closed with a single appearance.
“The attorneys do drag things out, which is unfortunate,” he said. But Burton also claimed many cases still proceed as they used to because the facts in many eviction disputes are on the side of the landlord. “Getting evicted in New York is like failing a test,” he said. “You have to try really hard to fail a test, and you have to try really hard to get evicted.”
But to tenants like Elizabeth Johnson, who was at court in Brooklyn the same day to fight an eviction, the systems in place at housing court all seem designed to disadvantage tenants. Her landlord, she said, illegally evicted her from her apartment before the date by which the court told her she had to leave.
“They called the police into the apartment and kicked us out,” she said. “Then they changed the locks so we couldn’t get back in to get our stuff.” But with the help of her lawyer, she said, she was negotiating that day for time to return to her apartment and retrieve her belongings.
“With the launch of Universal Access to Legal Services last year, New York City became the first jurisdiction in the nation to guarantee legal assistance to all low-income people facing eviction,” said Steven Banks, commissioner of the Department of Social Services in a statement. “Now, one year later, this initiative has provided thousands of New Yorkers the fighting chance they deserve to avoid eviction and harassment, having a positive impact not only for those who are able to remain in their homes but for the City overall.”
And even despite the challenges involved in rolling out such an ambitious program, some advocates and legislators want to expand right-to-counsel even further. The free representation offered by the city does not cover appeals, for instance, or Section 8 disputes. Mark Levine, a City Council member who represents Upper Manhattan, has also introduced a bill that would expand the range of incomes covered under the law—it currently covers those who make at most twice the federal poverty standard, but Levine’s bill would expand that to four times the standard.
Scherer also noted that the passage of right to counsel laws in New York had inspired the passage of a similar law in San Francisco; he also said he’s consulted with lawmakers working on similar legislation in cities including Chicago and Philadelphia.
“There are going to be hiccups, of course,” he said. “There was no way we were going to be able to represent tens of thousands of tenants overnight. But we’re fundamentally changing the culture of the courts. It’s a big disruption.”