Low-income tenants may get right to free counsel

New York City Council Member Mark Levine speaks about the Right to Counsel bill on the City Hall steps, September 26th 2016.

New York City Council Member Mark Levine speaks about the Right to Counsel bill on the City Hall steps, September 26th 2016.

“My nightmare began when my landlord’s lawyer served me eviction papers,” Bronx resident Randy Dillard testified at the September City Council public hearing on the right to counsel bill. “I was served just as I was released from the hospital and was in court for two and a half years.”

Initially, Dillard – single parent of five and grandfather of three – went to court by himself but after failing to get even a hearing he reached out to a tenant organization who helped him find a  lawyer.  Unfortunately, Dillard is one of a small minority, just 20 per cent, of tenants who come to housing court with a lawyer.

“Tenants do not know how to adjourn a case, what a default stipulation is, how to write up a deposition, or that they don’t have to talk to the landlord’s lawyer,” said Dillard. “There is no way tenants have a fair chance in court without a lawyer.”

Landlord and banks on the other hand, are almost always accompanied in court by their attorneys, according to a recent report. This imbalance may lead to settlements tenants can’t live up to and even evictions. In 2015, 22,000 families were evicted from their homes in New York, one-third of which were in the Bronx.

A new bill proposed by City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson intends to level the playing field, guaranteeing free lawyers to the poor who face eviction or foreclosure. The bill argues that the sixth amendment provides free legal counsel to anyone in a criminal trial, a right tenants in civil court proceedings don’t enjoy.

“This is the day we’ve waited so long for,” said Gibson on the steps of City Hall on September 26, the day of the bill’s testimony hearing. “This is about addressing the crisis of homelessness. Until we get universal right to counsel, our work is not done.”

Evictions are the number one cause for homelessness in New York and the most common reason people end up in shelters. Evictions can also lead to a decrease in available affordable housing because over half of the vacated apartments are rent stabilized and after a tenant is evicted, the apartment is sometimes returned on the market at a much higher rate. Studies show that having legal representation reduces the chance of eviction for tenants by 77 per cent.

So far, 42 Council members have sponsored the bill, which, if passed, would make New York the first jurisdiction in the United States to guarantee right to counsel for low income tenants in housing court.

Opponents to the “Right to Counsel” bill claim that it would cost too much to implement, money that wouldn’t necessarily be made up by a decreased need for homeless shelters. However, a financial report shows that investing in legal services for low-income tenants is a cheaper alternative to eviction. In fact, the report shows that the bill would save the city more than $320 million per year. Legal costs for representing tenants in court are estimated around $1,600 to $3,200 per case. Each bed in a New York shelter costs $36,000 per year.

“The math may not be that favorable,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer segment “Ask the Mayor” on September 28. “It is a very noble proposal,” he said, “but I have to be very careful in my budget proposal, everything I put in we will have to be able to support in the long run and an additional $200 million is a very heavy lift for the city of New York.” De Blasio is still considering his support for the bill.

Mayor De Blasio’s administration has increased funding for anti-eviction legal services from $6 million in 2014 to over $60 million in 2017. In 2015, the eviction rate dropped 18 percent from the previous year.

“Any New Yorker can now call 311, if we can defend them in court, we will get them a free lawyer,” De Blasio said. “Our focused efforts are working and I’m not sure [this bill] will continue to have an impact on ending evictions.”

Supporters of the bill are persistent though. “We are more than just a coalition,” said Levine, “we are a movement. There is no justice in any court when only one side is represented.”