The Right to A Lawyer in Housing Court May Soon Become A Reality

In June 2015, Leyla Martinez walked into her apartment building in the Bronx to see an eviction notice pinned to her door. The 42-year-old was a couple of months behind on her rent, which she blames on a sudden $300 hike. Unable to afford legal representation, Martinez decided to represent herself at housing court in the Bronx. After a year-long battle, the single mother of two was evicted in July 2016.

“They changed the locks on the door,” said Martinez. “I was homeless, and I was terrified.”

In her desperation, she reached out to the Urban Justice Center, where lawyer Kamilla Sjodin agreed to represent her pro-bono. Sjodin was able to get Martinez back into her apartment within a month.

“Kamilla just worked her magic and did in a month what I couldn’t do in a year,” said Martinez. “However, if I had had a lawyer earlier in the process, I would never have been evicted and required to pay almost double the amount in rent and fees.”

According to a 2016 study by the New York City Bar Association, there is a 77 percent decrease in warrants of eviction issued to  tenants who had an attorney in housing court compared to those who did not, independent of the merits of the case.

On a typical Monday morning, dozens of tenants form long lines outside Bronx housing court, clutching eviction notices, copies of money-orders and lease agreements. Juanita Ruiz, 67, was on the verge of tears as she tried to find her way around the court without a lawyer. “I might be evicted, and I am so scared,” she said.

New York State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried thinks most tenants settle cases out of court and pay a lot more money than necessary to avoid getting evicted. “When the tenant arrives at housing court, no one explains the process to them,” said Gottfried. “At one point, the tenant is expected to negotiate in the hallway with an unfriendly landlord lawyer who’s usually in a hurry to get to the next case.”

That’s what happened to Julio Vaca, a long-term Bronx resident. “I was sent an eviction notice for failing to pay two months’ rent last year,” said the 62-year-old. Not able to afford a lawyer, he went to court alone. Although he wasn’t evicted, he settled with his landlord, paying the rent he owed, plus additional compensation and the landlord’s lawyer’s fees. “I borrowed from a friend and paid it because I did not want to be on the streets,” Vaca said.

Another long term Bronx resident, Elizabeth Manuels, chose to settle her case and paid more money than she was supposed to. “No money, no lawyer,” she said. “I just did not want to be evicted.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio allocated $60 million this year to provide access to legal assistance for low-income tenants facing eviction and other housing-related issues. In spite of this, only 27 percent of New Yorkers who appear in housing court are represented by an attorney, in contrast to 99 percent of  landlords , according to a report by the New York City Office of Civil Justice. As per the report there were 22,000 evictions in the city last year, with the highest number in the Bronx.

To resolve this problem, the City Council held a hearing on September 26 for a bill which would guarantee free legal counsel for low income tenants. The bill called ‘Intro 214A’ would ensure legal assistance to tenants whose earnings are 200 percent below the poverty line. The cutoff for a single person would be an annual income of $23,760, while a family of four would have to make less than $48,600 a year to be eligible for free legal counsel.

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Right to Counsel Bill press conference

The City Council committee refers to the bill as ‘civil gideon’  in reference to a  landmark 1963 judgement by the Supreme Court which recognized that legal counsel is indispensable in criminal cases. This bill would make New York City the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee lawyers for any low-income residents facing eviction.

“Housing rights are human rights,” said Councilman Mark Treyger.

The bill requires the city to provide lawyers for low-income tenants facing eviction. The city would choose organizations to provide the free legal counsel and ensure that they are compensated fairly. A request for representation could be made by an eligible tenant, a judge or an advocacy organization.

“This bill will give a voice to thousands of New Yorkers facing eviction because of lack of access to counsel,” said Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who sponsored the bill with Councilman Mark Levine.

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Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson and Councilman Mark Levine held the hearing on the Right to Counsel Bill

The bill has gained enormous backing in the City Council. Forty-two of the fifty-one members have signed on as co-sponsors. Mayor de Blasio has not taken a position on the pending legislation yet, but Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks seemed hopeful during his testimony at the hearing. He told the committee that the de Blasio administration has increased funding for legal services and eviction-prevention tenfold since 2014 and is reviewing the current bill.

The biggest concern with the bill is its potential cost. A 2016 study by the Independent Budget Office determined that implementation would cost the city $200 million dollars annually. But it also found that providing low income tenants with lawyers in housing court will reduce the number of people entering family shelters by 28 percent and adult shelters by 7 percent, saving an estimated $143 million dollars annually in homeless shelter spending.

The bill has the support of the public advocate, the New York City Bar Association, legal aid societies, and labor unions.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. strongly supports the bill. He says he believes it can help keep New Yorkers in their homes and is an expansive approach to solving the eviction crisis. “Evictions clearly concern every corner of the city,” he said. “Too many families become homeless because they don’t have an advocate in court.”

More than 200,000 residential eviction petitions are filed annually in the city, with nearly a third concentrated in the Bronx, according to a report by the Office of Civil Justice.

The city’s Public Advocate Letitia James says a loophole in the current rent stabilization laws might be a possible reason for the increase in evictions. The current laws in the city permit landlords to increase the rent by 20 percent after new tenants move into an apartment. If apartments are not vacated, the rent for continuing tenants can only be increased by up to 1 percent annually. “Fifty-two percent of all tenants evicted last year were living in rent stabilized apartments,” she said.

Bronx Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner also made a strong case for the bill at the hearing. She said legal representation will empower tenants and protect the fabric of the community:  the hardworking individuals who have grown up in the Bronx and have chosen to remain there to raise their families.

“The Housing Court can be a very scary place for Bronxites – it is even scarier if you are struggling to make ends meet for your family,” she said.

This rings true for many Bronx tenants. Carmen Vera moved to the Bronx 36 years ago and was facing eviction soon after. “I did not have a lawyer. I was absolutely harassed and very scared,” she said. But eventually she got a lawyer and was able to fight off the eviction. “After I got an attorney, we flipped the table on the landlord and won the case.”