Today’s Read: City Will Guarantee Legal Aid to Low-Income New Yorkers Facing Eviction

On Sunday, Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito endorsed universal access to free legal services for low-income tenants in housing court – and thereby put New York City one step closer to rectifying the inequity that has pushed far too many New Yorkers out of their homes.

The announcement marks a major victory for the Right to Counsel NYC campaign, of which the Coalition for the Homeless is an active member. Since 2014, we have urged City leaders to mitigate the citywide eviction epidemic by leveling the playing field in housing court – where 90 percent of landlords have legal representation while nearly three-quarters of tenants are left to navigate the confusing system alone. This longstanding imbalance can be devastating for tenants, and can make housing court the last stop before the shelter intake center. Enhanced legal services funding has already resulted in a decrease in evictions, but a full right to counsel would build upon this initial progress and provide a vital protection for countless tenants who are on the brink of homelessness.

In our efforts to reduce unjust evictions and help more tenants access resources that can help them stay in their homes, the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition has hosted rallies, coordinated petitions, presented testimony and more. Thanks to this tireless advocacy, New York City is on the verge of making history by guaranteeing a right to legal assistance in housing court for all tenants who earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level.

Amanda Mikelberg wrote about the Mayor’s announcement in Metro:

The program will drastically reduce the excessive rate of homelessness and the cost to taxpayers on homeless shelters and other services, officials say.

The initiative will target the “an epidemic of evictions,” the bill’s lead sponsor City Council Member Mark Levine told Metro. “We’ve had a bill since 2014 and from the beginning it felt like it was an uphill battle. It was the incredible coalition of advocates and the urgency of the issues that brought us here,” he said.

The city plans to add $93 million to the program’s current $62 million annual budget, bringing the total investment to $155 million a year. Yet the program will actually provide taxpayers a savings of $320 million a year: The average cost of hiring an attorney is $2,400 is substantially less than the $36,000 cost for per shelter bed each year.

Levine expects the bill to be passed into law in the coming weeks, and will be phased into action over five years.

Tenants without attorneys are at an immense disadvantage in court when facing landlords who want to vacate rent-controlled apartments to charge market rates. But frequently, when the tenant does have representation, the landlords will drop the case.

It is a hard-fought victory for the activists and legislators who vehemently pulled for the bill. In December, Levine sent a letter with 6,763 signatures urging the mayor to prioritize the program.

The right to counsel success, while historic, is only one component of the multi-pronged strategy needed to combat record homelessness. Despite commendable progress on homelessness prevention, the City cannot effectively address the crisis unless it simultaneously commits to creating more deeply affordable housing and fully utilizing existing resources like NYCHA public housing. Giselle Routhier, the Coalition’s Policy Director, said:

The Mayor and Council Speaker’s laudable initiative to guarantee a right to counsel for low-income tenants in housing court is a significant victory for the thousands of New Yorkers who are wrongfully evicted each year. Eviction remains a leading cause of homelessness and this critical step will substantially reduce the number of families that fall into homelessness.

The City is making impressive progress in homelessness prevention – but that is only one-half of the equation. Until there is a realistic housing production and placement plan that gives homeless families a way out of shelters and into permanent housing, including a much-needed increase in placements into NYCHA public housing, homelessness in New York will continue at record levels.