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Testimony of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
before the New York City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services

RE: Intro 214-A/Right to Counsel

September 26, 2016

Good morning.

I am very happy to be here today, with so many of my colleagues in government and so many of my constituents, to voice my support for Intro 214-A, which would provide the most vulnerable among us with free legal representation in housing court.

There is an undeniable homelessness crisis in this city, one that underscores the importance of increased representation of low-income tenants in eviction proceedings. Anyone doubting the causal relationship between evictions and possessions of the dwellings of low-income tenants and homelessness need only look at the available data, which shows that thousands of families have just faced eviction at the time they entered the shelter system.

Intro 214-A, authored by Council Member Mark Levine, would create the blueprint for providing attorneys to New York City tenants facing eviction, ejectment and foreclosure proceedings. The bill would provide improved access to justice for individuals with incomes up to 200 percent of the Federal poverty level.

According to data compiled by Housing Court Answers, the total number of residential evictions and possessions in New York City in 2015 was 21,988. Of those evictions, 7,401 were carried out in The Bronx, with 7,033 in Brooklyn, 3,939 in Queens, 2,898 in Manhattan, and 717 in Staten Island.   

Evictions clearly concern every corner of the city. It is imperative that we take an expansive approach to solving the housing problem. Building new affordable housing is not the only answer.

I support Intro 214-A because this legislation both promotes the administration of justice and has considerable fiscal merits.  The financial reasons for providing counsel must be fleshed out in light of a recent analysis that projects tremendous cost savings to the City from the bill.

Litigants in housing court should play on a fair field, not one where one party has legal expertise and where the other does not know their rights or have access to the same procedural strategies. For example, The Independent Budget Office’s December 2014 memorandum on Intro 214-A cites a New York City study that showed that there was a 77 percent decrease in warrants of eviction issued when tenants had an attorney in housing court versus when they did not independent of the cases’ merits. 

Homelessness is all too often the unnecessary and unfair result of this inequity in representation-- and with great human cost. The deck remains stacked against low-income tenants, most of whom do not have attorneys, because most landlords have representation in housing court.

Any analysis of the financial benefits of the legislation must account for the fiscal cost of supporting the homeless and of replacing lost rent-regulated apartments that have become market-rate with other affordable housing.

A recent study released by the New York City Bar Association found that Intro 214-A would save the city $320 million annually, after accounting for the need to replace rent regulated apartments with other affordable housing and for the state and federal funding that would be saved on shelter costs and other preventative services.

Additionally, Intro 214-A would increase access to justice in foreclosure proceedings, which have wrought havoc on this country over the past decade.

The benefits of this proposed law are considerable, and could help keep New Yorkers in their homes. Too many families become homeless because they don’t have an advocate in court or someone to get them connected with housing financial assistance, like the FEPS program, that would allow them to keep their homes.

Justice requires protecting our most vulnerable from unnecessary eviction and the resulting plight of homelessness. We can do more to both promote fairness in these proceedings and provide representation for the underserved.

We can pass Intro 214-A.

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