Today’s Read: How to Fight Homelessness

As the city’s housing affordability crisis worsens and gentrification sweeps into more neighborhoods, a growing number of New Yorkers are facing eviction – and homelessness. An estimated 90 percent of these tenants have to navigate the intimidating maze of housing court without legal representation. The vast majority of landlords, of course, have lawyers – and so they usually prevail in court, resulting in thousands of families losing their homes. Eviction is a leading reason why so many families with children are sleeping in homeless shelters: From FY 2002 to FY 2014, the percentage of families entering shelter after a formal eviction rose from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Mary Brosnahan, the Coalition’s President and CEO, co-authored an op-ed with City Councilmember Mark D. Levine about the importance of preventing homelessness through legal representation in housing court.

More than two-thirds of the people in our shelters are families with vulnerable children, and the most common cause of their homelessness isn’t drug dependency or mental illness. It’s eviction. If we can slow the pace of evictions, we will make a major dent in the homelessness crisis.

Evictions have reached epidemic proportions in New York City. The number of families forced from their homes by court order has been rising steadily for the last 10 years, and is now close to 29,000 per year. Countless thousands more are leaving under duress midway through eviction proceedings. Many end up with nowhere to go and are forced to turn to homeless shelters.

The sky-high pace of evictions is exacerbated by our profoundly unequal judicial system. Unlike those in criminal cases, New Yorkers in housing court have no right to counsel. The result: Only 10 percent of New York City tenants who appear in court have attorneys to help protect their rights. In stark contrast, close to 100 percent of landlords do. It’s hard to overstate just how badly this skews the results of eviction proceedings in favor of owners.

Housing law in New York is byzantine and challenging even for lawyers to navigate. For low-income tenants representing themselves, winning a case against a landlord’s attorney is a steep uphill climb. Unscrupulous landlords are fully aware of this dynamic and attempt to capitalize on it by routinely hauling tenants into housing court on weak grounds — knowing full well that the deck is stacked in their favor. Randomized studies have shown that those few tenants who do have attorneys are 80 percent less likely to be evicted as those representing themselves. Landlords know this, too — and will sometimes simply drop their case as soon as they realize a tenant is represented.

Eviction prevention alone cannot solve New York’s homelessness crisis – we need significant investment in permanent housing solutions for those who have already lost their homes. But keeping people from becoming homeless in the first place is an obvious way to start to stem the tide. Last month the de Blasio administration demonstrated its commitment to the issue when it announced an additional $12.3 million to help connect tenants facing eviction with lawyers. The best way to level the playing field, however, is to establish a mandated right to counsel in housing court for all New Yorkers, as proposed in new legislation cosponsored by Councilmembers Levine and Vanessa L. Gibson.

This right to counsel would yield significant taxpayer savings in the long run. Brosnahan and Levine write, “It costs about $2,500 to provide a tenant with an attorney for an eviction proceeding, while we spend on average over $45,000 to shelter a homeless family. Our proposal makes good moral and financial sense.”

Read the full op-ed article in The New York Times.