Coalition Testifies on Right to Counsel in Housing Court

On Monday, the Coalition for the Homeless joined dozens of other advocates and tenants in presenting testimony in support of City Council Intro 214-a, which would guarantee legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in housing court.

Eviction is a leading driver of the historic homelessness crisis, and the vast majority of tenants are left to navigate the daunting housing court process without the assistance of an attorney. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of landlords have lawyers. The tilted power dynamic puts tenants at an inherent disadvantage, making them more likely to enter into unfavorable agreements and less likely to assert their rights and remain stably housed.

Intro 214-a would level the playing field in housing court by guaranteeing legal assistance to New Yorkers making 200 percent of the poverty line or less. The bold proposal is in fact both morally and fiscally responsible: Independent studies have found that establishing a right to counsel in housing court would more than pay for itself by preserving the scarce affordable housing supply and reducing shelter expenditures.

The City has made progress by expanding access to lawyers for certain target neighborhoods, which has resulted in an initial and promising increase in the number of represented tenants and a resulting decrease in evictions. By passing Intro 214-a, the City can build upon this success and rectify the fundamentally unjust disparity in housing court proceedings.

The full testimony can be read here.

We cannot effectively address the homelessness crisis without a robust commitment to preventing displacement in the first place, and eviction remains among the primary causes of rising demand for emergency shelter. With the growth of incomes still trailing the sharp increase in rents over the past decade, many New Yorkers are just one missed paycheck or one unforeseen setback away from falling behind in rent. Every week, the Coalition’s Eviction Prevention Program Hotline is flooded with tenants desperately trying to cobble together enough funds to pay off their rental arrears, terrified at the prospect of losing their homes. Nearly 22,000 evictions were carried out in New York City last year, and with an ever-shrinking supply of affordable housing citywide, many of these families had no choice but to enter the shelter system. For thousands of New Yorkers each year, housing court is the last stop on the way to the shelter intake center. In fiscal year 2015, eviction was listed as the direct reason for homelessness for 37 percent of adult families and 25 percent of families with children.

We commend the Council and the de Blasio administration for taking key steps toward increasing legal representation in housing court, but additional funding is not the same as an enshrined right to counsel, which would greatly expand the initial positive effects of increased legal assistance across the City. As evidenced in the OCJ report, lawyers can help guide tenants through the housing court process, empower them to assert their rights, and negotiate more time to pay off arrears. Intro 214-A would solidify the legacy of the current City Council and administration, sending a clear message that New York City values the rights of its citizens regardless of income level, and adding a vital layer of support to help keep thousands of low-income families and individuals in their homes, saving them from the trauma of homelessness.