Today’s Read: How to Solve the Housing Crisis

The skyrocketing cost of housing throughout New York City has left many tenants struggling to pay rent – one missed paycheck or unforeseen expense away from falling into arrears and facing eviction. In housing court, tenants are often left to defend themselves against landlords who are represented by lawyers 98 percent of the time.

This uneven ground makes it more likely that tenants will be forced from their homes. With the number of affordable apartments dwindling every year, many low-income families and individuals facing eviction will have no other option than to join the tens of thousands of New Yorkers already sleeping in homeless shelters. Indeed, 28 percent of families entering shelter reported becoming homeless because of eviction.

Fortunately, the City’s current initiative to increase legal assistance to low-income tenants in housing court is yielding positive results: Evictions in NYC decreased by 18 percent in 2015 to 21,988 – the lowest number of evictions since 2005.

Now, a new report for the New York City Bar Association amplifies the call to build upon that progress and establish a right to counsel for all low-income tenants facing eviction. The report found that guaranteeing legal assistance for all tenants earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level – as proposed by NYC Council Intro. 214-A – would actually save taxpayers $320 million per year by avoiding costly shelter for thousands of New Yorkers and preserving affordable housing units.

Bloomberg News summarized the report’s findings:

“Tenants who face eviction without counsel simply have no idea what their rights are,” said Andrew Scherer, policy director at the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School. While true of most matters involving litigants who represent themselves, it is acutely the case in an area governed by a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws. Renters can avoid eviction and even win rent cuts if landlords haven’t kept up with repairs. They can also win if landlords missed some procedural steps in filing for eviction, or if they haven’t complied with rules governing affordable apartments.

The bar association, in a new report, said if taxpayers fund legal counsel for poor renters who face eviction, they would learn of those rights, and the knock-on effect would eventually pay for their lawyers—and save the city millions of dollars.

Here’s how that works: Under a bill being considered by the New York City Council, the city would provide funding for free lawyers to renters earning less than $50,000, or twice the local poverty level for a family of four. According to the advisory firm Stout Risius Ross, which prepared the bar association report, the bill would provide lawyers to defendants in about 129,000 cases, at a cost of $259 million. In return, the city would save more than a half billion dollars by keeping families out of homeless shelters and by preserving affordable housing. On the whole, the free counsel program would pare $320 million from the city’s budget, even after counting the cost of the program.