Today’s Read: New York Becomes First City to Guarantee Lawyers to Tenants Facing Eviction

In a tremendous victory for tenants at risk of displacement and homelessness, a new law will correct a longstanding imbalance in housing court by guaranteeing access to legal counsel for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction.

Thanks to years of steadfast advocacy by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition – of which the Coalition for the Homeless is a proud member – Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed universal access to legal counsel in February and signed Intro. 214-B into law on Friday. This historic legislation would not have been possible without the countless rallies, meetings, petitions, and hearings coordinated by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition since 2014.

This bold plan meets an urgent need: The citywide housing affordability crisis has led to an eviction epidemic, and housing court is often the last stop before the homeless shelter intake center. In housing court, 90 percent of landlords have legal representation while the vast majority of tenants are left to navigate the confusing system alone.

Preventing evictions saves families and individuals from the terrible trauma of homelessness – while also saving taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on costly shelters. The City has already seen encouraging results in stemming evictions by increasing funding for legal services and rental arrears payments: Between 2013 and 2015, residential evictions by City Marshals declined 24 percent as the share of tenants represented by a lawyer surged from 1 percent to 27 percent.

The new law, which will be phased in over five years, will build upon this progress by guaranteeing that all tenants with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level will have access to free legal representation, and tenants above that threshold will receive brief legal assistance. Furthermore, the law ensures that NYCHA public housing residents will be able to access counsel during administrative hearings.

Ashley Dejean covered the historic bill signing for Mother Jones:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation Friday guaranteeing most low-income tenants access to lawyers if they face eviction, making New York the first city in the country to offer such protections. “Tenants will have this same opportunity as landlords to defend their interests,” de Blasio said during the signing ceremony. “We’ve all seen plenty of times when someone had all the money, someone had all the power, and it was David and Goliath and good people lost because they just didn’t have the opportunity to defend themselves.”

[Activist Randy] Dillard says tenants facing possible eviction won’t be scared like he was. “We believe landlords won’t take you to court just for nothing anymore, because now they know you have an attorney,” he said.

Under the new law, legal services will be provided to tenants facing eviction who make below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. A study conducted by the New York City Bar Association found that tenants in more than 80 percent of eviction cases would qualify for the legal assistance. Another study of low-income tenants in Manhattan facing eviction from 2001 found having legal counsel reduced evictions by 77 percent in the cases observed. In 2007, about half of the families in New York City’s homeless shelters became homeless within five years of an eviction, according to intake data.

New York’s program will be phased in over a five year period, starting with certain zip codes spread across all the boroughs, and then gradually expanded, though housing advocates are calling on the government to prioritize legal services for seniors and people with disabilities in addition to the location-based roll out.

Marika Dias, director of the Tenant Rights Coalition at Legal Services NYC, says the new law will be an important tool in the fight against displacement and gentrification in a city where affordable housing is disappearing while rent continues to rise. “In the current real estate environment in New York City, tenants are really vulnerable,” she says. “And there are a lot incentives for landlords to displace, in particular, rent-regulated tenants in low income communities that are facing gentrification.”

Coalition for the Homeless thanks our colleagues in the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, as well as bill co-sponsors Councilmember Mark Levine and Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Mayor de Blasio for working together to win this great victory.