New York, NY - Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson held a hearing today to hear testimony on Intro 214-A, a bill that would require the Office of Civil Justice to establish a program for the provision of legal counsel for low-income tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings.
Among those who attended the rally in support of the bill were City Public Advocate Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Brooklyn BP Eric Adams, several other city and state elected officials, legal services providers, tenant advocacy groups, faith leaders, unions, and the NYC Bar Association.
Unlike in criminal court, there is no right to counsel in housing court. Tenants without resources must fend for themselves. Today, only about 20% of those facing eviction are represented by an attorney--compared to nearly 100% of landlords. The resulting un-level playing field has been disastrous for tenants. In 2015 alone, nearly 22,000 New York City families were evicted.
This wave of evictions is driving our homeless and affordable housing crisis. The IBO reports that eviction is the single most common reason that families in New York City end up in shelters, and over the past decade, the share of families citing eviction as the cause for their homelessness has increased dramatically. Evictions are also leading to a loss of affordable housing, as over half of the units vacated are rent stabilized, and many of those apartments then go market rate.
The impact of having an attorney is invaluable. Controlled studies show that having legal representation during housing court proceedings reduces the chances of eviction by 77%, and in some cases landlords simply drop their cases after learning the tenant has an attorney.
Since the Mayor and the City Council have dramatically increased funding for anti-eviction legal services over the past two years, from $6M in FY14 to over $60M in FY17, evictions in 2015 dropped 18.1% from the previous year.
In addition to former NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, A broad coalition of leaders and organizations have coalesced around the movement to expand representation in housing court. Supporters include not just nearly every major tenants rights and affordable housing group in the city, but also SEIU1199, DC37 and advocacy groups as diverse as LiveOn NY, Coalition for the Homeless, the National Center for Access to Justice, and the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
Council Member Mark Levine said, “the incredible turnout today is a testament to the seriousness of the issue we are addressing. We are here to address a crisis. That crisis is the threat of eviction faced by tens of thousands of tenants, our fellow New Yorkers, who are on an incredibly uneven playing field in a place where the standard should be fairness. But there is no fairness in an eviction proceeding when the landlord has an attorney and the tenant does not, and that sadly is the precise situation faced by the vast majority of tenants today. The results of this injustice are predictable: an epidemic of evictions. In 2015 alone, nearly 22,000 New York City families were evicted, with thousands more forced from their homes under duress mid-way through eviction proceedings. That’s why I authored Intro 214-A. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have taken the critical step of increasing funding for tenant legal representation more than tenfold--and evictions have dropped 24% as a result. But nearly three-quarters of low-income tenants are still left to fend for themselves. That’s why we need this bill.”
Council Member Vanessa Gibson said, “A guaranteed right to counsel for low income individuals is the clear next step in our efforts to fight homelessness and combat the impacts of income inequality. Intro 214 will reintroduce justice to the housing court system and reaffirm our efforts to put an end to the tale of two cities. I thank my colleague and legislative partner Council Member Mark Levine for his leadership and tireless advocacy throughout this process and I am also thankful to the Right to Counsel Coalition for truly being the heart of this movement. This is a historic day for tenants and I could not be prouder to co-sponsor this incredibly important legislation.”
“There is an undeniable homelessness crisis in this city, one that underscores the importance of increased representation of low-income tenants in eviction proceedings. I am proud to stand with so many of my colleagues and advocates from across the city today in support of Intro 214-A. This legislation will allow for the implementation of justice and fairness in housing court proceedings by providing legal representation to tenants who need it, and that is a protection that is long overdue. This is a critical tool in the fight against displacement, and I am hopeful this bill will become law,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
“The power imbalance we see too often in Housing Court is a thumb on the scale of justice,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “Establishing a right to legal counsel in Housing Court is the right thing to do, and will help keep New Yorkers in their homes.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said, “I understand all too well the affordable housing concerns of Brooklyn’s residents, many of whom live in fear of possible eviction and harassment by their landlords. Income cannot and must not be a barrier to justice. Amending the City’s administrative code to allow a provision of legal services in eviction, ejectment, and foreclosure proceedings will give hundreds — if not thousands — of New Yorkers an opportunity to have legal counsel representation during a difficult time. Let us do all we can to protect every man, woman, and child from the fear of being displaced and harassed, while creating lasting communities in which we can all find a safe place to call home.”
“Today is a truly historic moment in the development of equal justice, not just in New York City, but in the United States. When the Council passes Intro 214 and the Mayor signs it into law, New York City will become the first jurisdiction in the nation to guarantee that its poorest and most vulnerable residents don’t face losing their homes, being traumatized by eviction, getting displaced from their communities, and entering homeless shelters without having attorneys to defend them. The City's vast expansion of funding for eviction prevention legal help is a great first step, but funding alone is not enough. Passing Intro 214A and establishing a right to counsel does what no amount of funding can do – it completely and permanently shifts the dynamic of housing justice for the long haul in this city and sends a powerful message that this administration respects its lowest income residents, and that it recognizes that their human dignity and their homes and communities matter” said, Andrew Scherer, Policy Director, Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School.
“A report recently done for the New York City Bar Association found that providing counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction will save more in homeless shelter costs and other costs of homelessness than the cost of providing the lawyers. When you add to the expected shelter savings the enormous indirect and humanitarian costs of homelessness (and of evictions that displace families even when they do not directly result in homelessness), the benefits of this legislation outweigh its expected cost even more. This is an opportunity for the City Council and Mayor, who have already shown important leadership in protecting low-income tenants, to pursue a course that would have national impact and become a model for cities everywhere. New York City is the right city to be the first to take this historic step, said John Kiernan, President, New York City Bar Association.
“People at or near the poverty level facing the loss of their apartment often face the loss of much more – including their liberty, their children,” said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive Director. “This bill is a mandate for greater fairness in eviction proceedings. It deserves the support of all City Council members – and of Mayor DeBlasio."
Jenny Laurie of Housing Court Answers said, “The right to counsel will stop the terrible treatment of low income tenants in Housing Court. Today, even with the city's added funding, tens of thousand of tenants go to court unrepresented, consent to judgments they can't pay, get no repairs, and face the very real threat that the marshal will come and throw them out. We know that representation stops evictions: it is time to accept this as a civil rights issue and guarantee a right to counsel for low income tenants.”
“Offering legal counsel for people who can’t afford it is a crucial way to help New Yorkers stay in their homes," said Council Member Rory I. Lancman. "With homelessness at a historic high, our city should do everything possible to make sure that tenant protections are stronger than ever, and I'm proud to be a co-sponsor of this important legislation.”
"Right to Counsel would undo the prevalent injustices and victimization of low-income tenants in New York City. Leveling the playing field by providing legal representation in housing court would provide housing security and economic stability for many working-class families," said Progressive Caucus Co-chairs, Council Members Donovan Richards and Antonio Reynoso. "With this important legislation, the Council is sending a clear and uncompromised message that we believe tenants are entitled to safe and affordable housing free from market pressures that promote illegal harassment and displacement."
Council Member Fernando Cabrera said, “I strongly support right to counsel for low income tenants. Homelessness due to eviction has increased beyond the critical point. Pending loss of housing is the most frequent concern of constituents who visit my office. It is imperative that we invest in legal counsel for low-income tenants to ensure that they have representation in court proceedings and to stop the destabilization of families and individual lives that results from eviction.”
"Tenants facing eviction have the right to protection under the law, and the surest way to reinforce that right is to ensure that tenants have counsel," said Council Member Margaret S. Chin. "This bill will increase access to legal services for tenants who are facing increasing pressure, aggressive tactics and harassment from landlords. I thank Council Members Levine and Gibson, as well as the broad coalition of tenant advocates, for their hard work on this important issue."
“We can no longer stand idly by as thousands of tenants get evicted because they can’t afford a lawyer. Giving tenants the right to counsel is not only morally correct, it is also fiscally responsible as the cost of counsel is less expensive than housing a family in a shelter,” said Council Member Andrew Cohen. “I thank Council Members Levine and Gibson for their leadership on this issue and look forward to continue working with my colleagues to ensure that tenants are protected against greedy landlords.”
Council Member Elizabeth Crowley said, “Far too many New Yorkers are entering into the shelter system today. This legislation is crucial in both preventing families and individuals from going through an unnecessary hardship, and alleviating the city’s overburdened shelter system. Thank you to Council Members Gibson and Levine for their leadership and dedication to keeping New Yorkers in their homes.”
“Keeping as many families in their homes as possible must be a priority for all New Yorkers,” said Council Member Rafael L Espinal Jr. “Intro 214A would provide critical resources to low income families in their most crucial time of need. Just as in criminal cases, access to legal counsel should be extended to low income eligible tenants who find themselves in housing court; often through no fault of their own. I applaud Council Member Levine for addressing the current homelessness crisis by reforming this aspect of our broken housing system and protecting tenants before they become homeless. I look forward to the progress this bill will bring for the thousands of New Yorkers who deserve legal representation, and above all, a safe and stable home.”
Council Member Eugene said,“Today, only one out of five tenants facing eviction are represented by an attorney in housing court in contrast to nearly 100% of landlords having legal representation for such proceedings. These conditions have produced an unlevel playing field, resulting in an increasing number of evictions in New York City that has in turn produced a loss of affordable housing and a rise in homelessness.It is of critical importance that the City Council passes Intro. 214A, which will provide low-income tenants with the legal counsel that they need and should be entitled to in our court system.”
Council Member Gentile said, “I am proud to support and co-sponsor Council Member Levine’s legislation that would ensure low-income tenants legal representation in housing court during eviction proceedings. Our most vulnerable New Yorkers logically deserve their right to counsel to stem the “David vs. Goliath” proceedings that we have unfortunately seen far too often in these cases.”
"Having a lawyer can be the difference between keeping your home or getting evicted and thrown out on the street," said Council Member Ben Kallos. "We must expand our constitutional right to legal representation in criminal cases from Gideon v. Wainwright to Housing Court to protect New Yorkers from wrongly losing their homes and their property."
Council Member Peter Koo, “If we are going to get serious about homelessness and the affordability gap affecting New Yorkers across our city, we first must start by ensuring those on the brink of collapse have the necessary resources at their disposal to keep them from losing everything. Many thanks to the Council members Levine, Gibson and our co-sponsors for stepping up to ensure all new Yorkers are afforded access to fair representation under the law.”
“Sadly, every week, constituents come into my office asking for help in housing court because they are facing eviction, they don’t know their rights and they don’t know where to turn. Many of these people are low-income residents who can’t afford an attorney to represent them and may face being placed in the shelter system. Providing attorney representation would help those facing eviction to stand up and claim their rights,” said Council Member Andy King.
“Having a lawyer in NYC’s housing court can be the difference between keeping a stable home for your family and falling into homelessness,” says Council Member Brad Lander. “If we are truly committed to addressing the City’s housing crisis, we need to make sure every tenant gets a fair opportunity to make their case. By passing the Right to Counsel, we can not only give families in need a fairer chance of keeping their home, but save the City future tax dollars that would otherwise need to be spent on providing shelters and developing affordable housing for evicted New Yorkers. Thanks to Council Member Levine for working to ensure sure low-income tenants get the fair chance they deserve.”
Council Member Menchaca said, “Legal help can mean the difference between displacement and a fair outcome when your home is on the line. Landlords have lawyers, tenants must have representation too. When tenants have legal counsel in housing court, their chances for a fair outcome skyrocket. Our city is in the midst of an extreme housing crisis. What’s the use of rushing to build new affordable housing when long-time renters are routinely kicked to the curb? We must protect our neighbors – especially low-income immigrants, families, and elders – who are especially vulnerable to complicated legal procedures and grossly unfair housing practices. Secure housing is a right. Legal representation to preserve our homes should be a right as well.”
“Legal representation is everyone’s right and I am proud to support this legislation ensuring those in need are able to defend themselves before a possible eviction” said Councilman I. Daneek Miller. “If enacted, thousands of families will be stay out of homeless shelters, saving the City millions of dollars. I would like to thank my colleagues Councilman Mark Levine and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, along with all the advocates standing up for the rights of working families.”
Council Member Annabel Palma said, “For far too long, the eviction process has subjected our most vulnerable citizens to unfair court proceedings. This has resulted in under-representation for evicted tenants, and a homelessness crisis that is exacerbated by every eviction decided in housing court. For these reasons, I have allocated funds from the FY17 budget, and partnered with attorneys at the Urban Justice Center, to hold legal clinics to provide constituents with the services they need. Legal representation should be a right for all, not just for those that can afford retain legal representation. This is an investment to ensure procedural justice for all, while avoiding the societal costs of evicting families.”
Council Member Antonio Reynoso said, "Tenant lawyers representing my constituents in housing court have made a huge impact on stabilizing communities in my district. Yet right now their resources are limited, and not everyone can access these services. Ensuring the right to counsel would be a much-needed check on bad landlord behavior, would keep tenants in their homes, and would help keep our communities diverse."
Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said, "Tenants across the city feel this housing crisis most when their landlords resort to dirty tricks to push them out. Low income New Yorkers rarely have the money or legal acumen to fight back, which can lead to displacement and even homelessness. With the Right to Counsel Act, we're putting our foot down to say tenants have a right to defend themselves. I'm proud to join Council Member Levine in this effort as we know the tough price tenants pay without legal help."
Councilwoman Debi Rose said, “When more than 90% of landlords are represented by counsel and less than 10% of tenants come to housing court with representation, we have a serious imbalance in our system. Providing civil legal services to low-income tenants not only prevents coercion and abuse, but it saves taxpayers money as well. When tenants are unsuccessful in our complex legal system—or simply give up out of frustration—their unmet legal needs invariably take a toll on local government and on the taxpayers. We see this in the record numbers of people housed in our city’s shelter system. The long-term costs of unrepresented individuals in our legal system touch all aspects of a community, and that is why I support providing all tenants with access to attorneys.”
Council Member Helen Rosenthal said, "Housing court is hardly fair when only one side has legal representation. Investing in lawyers for tenants in housing court will help keep families in their homes, and we have a fiscal and moral responsibility to do that. I thank Council Member Mark D. Levine for leading the charge on this essential issue.”
Council Member Treyger said, "The statistics are clear: tenants are far more likely to come out ahead in housing court legal proceedings when they are able to make use of an attorney’s services. This bill represents an opportunity for New York City to be a leading example for the rest of the country, as it has been so many times before, in fighting to curb inequality for low-income New Yorkers. With crises in affordable housing and homelessness, the right to counsel will help keep more people in their homes, preserve affordable housing, and save the City money in the process."
Council Member Jumaane Williams said, “Low-income New Yorkers are one of the most vulnerable populations in the City and thus need added resources and assistance. Unlike in criminal court, tenants are not afforded free legal counsel in housing court, giving landlords, who almost always have legal representation, an advantage. Given the housing and homelessness crisis in this City, it is our duty as legislators to give all New Yorkers a level playing field in housing court.”