By Kelly Regan
Under a 2017 law, New York City provides free legal assistance for qualified tenants facing eviction in housing court. According to a new report released by the city’s Office of Civil Justice (OCJ), the “Universal Access” program has kept more than 21,000 renters in their homes during 2018.
The report, “Universal Access to Legal Services: A Report on Year One of Implementation in New York City,” states that during fiscal 2018, 21,955 city residents across 7,847 households who were threatened with eviction were able to remain in their homes after securing legal representation from OCJ-funded lawyers. Furthermore, in the last quarter of fiscal 2018, approximately 34 percent of tenants citywide who were in Housing Court for eviction proceedings were represented by counsel.
The report hails these numbers an essential step toward leveling the playing field for NYC’s low-income tenants, “not only saving thousands of tenancies but also promoting the preservation of affordable housing and neighborhood stability.”
As Next City has reported, after more than three years of community organizing in support of the bill, last year New York became the first U.S. city to pass a right-to-counsel law for housing court. The OCJ report analyzes Year One of what will be a five-year rollout of the plan across the city. As of late 2018, only 15 of the city’s 211 ZIP codes are now active in the program.
Gothamist reports that housing advocates have called the initial rollout promising, but uneven. According to the website, “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.”
Figures cited in the report underscore that point. Overall, in the 15 zip codes that have adopted tenant protections, approximately 56 percent of tenants in Housing Court received legal assistance. Breaking it down by borough, Staten Island claimed the highest legal representation rate, at 77 percent, followed by Brooklyn at 72 percent, Manhattan at 61 percent, The Bronx at 52 percent, and Queens at just 41 percent.
What’s next? According to WNYC, council members Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine have introduced legislation that would raise the income threshold from 200 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, which would bring under the umbrella any tenants making the $15 NYC minimum wage.
Since New York’s law took effect, in August 2017, San Francisco voters approved a similar measure, Proposition F, earlier this year.