Today’s Read: More New Yorkers Facing Eviction are Getting Lawyers
The key to turning the tide and reducing the shelter census is to prevent homelessness before it begins. However, more than half of New York City residents grapple with unaffordable rents, meaning that a dangerously high number of households are one missed paycheck or unforeseen crisis away from falling behind. If they do find themselves in housing court, the cards are stacked against them: Most landlords are represented by attorneys, while the majority of tenants are left to navigate the intimidating and confusing process on their own. Without a lawyer to inform them of their rights, connect them to resources, and negotiate a reasonable payment plan, tenants are more likely to be evicted and – in far too many cases – forced into homelessness.
The de Blasio administration and City Council have taken steps to address this imbalance, and a new report from the NYC Office of Civil Justice finds that the City’s initial investment in legal services has yielded tremendous results: 27 percent of tenants facing an eviction were represented by a lawyer in 2015, up from only 1 percent in 2013. During that same period, residential evictions by City Marshals declined 24 percent.
These impressive figures prove the impact of legal assistance in keeping New Yorkers in their homes, but more work remains. The increased legal services still do not provide assistance to all who need it, and the City’s funding commitment could easily be rolled back by a future administration or Council. Only through establishing a right to counsel, as proposed by Intro 214-a, can the City truly guarantee a level playing field in housing court.
As Next City explains,
For [Councilmember Mark] Levine, UJC and others, the OCJ report provides yet more momentum toward passing a pending council bill that would establish the right to counsel for all tenants in NYC housing court and set up a system similar to public defenders for criminal cases. (Levine and fellow council member Vanessa Gibson from the Bronx co-introduced the bill back in 2014, and it still remains under discussion.) The city would establish a pool of legal aid attorneys, including some from UJC. Similar to public defenders, and similar to how it currently works in housing court under the recently increased city funding, judges and clerks or the city’s welfare administration would refer clients in need of assistance to one of the attorney groups, which would get paid a flat rate per case. The going rate right now is around $3,000 per case, the same whether it’s a super easy three- or four-hour case or a three- or four-month case.
No matter how simple or complex a case may be, here’s a factor to keep in mind: While the city might pay $3,000 for representation that keeps a family in their existing apartment, if instead they’re evicted and end up cycling in and out of homeless shelters, that same family might cost the city more than $43,000 per year, according to a study by the Right to Counsel Coalition. UJC is part of the Right Counsel Coalition, which has been pushing for the bill’s passage.
Overall, according to the study, a right to counsel in housing court would save the city so much money, in homeless shelter costs as well as healthcare and other costs, the program would in effect pay for itself as well as save another $320 million for the city budget.
On September 26th, the New York City Council will hold a hearing on Intro 214-a, which would give low-income New Yorkers the right to legal representation when fighting for their homes in housing court. All are welcome to attend the press conference at 10am on the City Hall Steps or the hearing at 11am. Visit www.righttocounselnyc.org for details.